Chapter 4

By the time he got back to his condo, with his lasagna dinner and groceries (and shoes wet and floppy), the brothers had already replied.

Oy! William!

Splendid of you to write!

Impolite to not tell us that you were coming over!


You now have to meet us IMMEDIATELY or we’ll never forgive you.

God will. Eventually.

But us? NEVER.

We’re in a place called Lipa. It’s a little town in a province called Batangas, and not too far from Manila. Trip takes maybe two and a half hours, worst case scenario. So you can leave when work’s over and be here in time for supper.

Will tell you more about Lipa and why we’re here when you get here. WHEN.

The bus leaves from Manila from a place near the train station that you can access by train from the university. I’ve been to the university but I can’t remember the names of stations or streets in Manila (very sorry – not the language brother). You can ask people for details, and they’ll help. It’s a very helpful country. They also do strange things, like starting Christmas season in September, praying to the child Jesus in costumes, or giving you knighthood. Call you “sir” and all.

Typhoon expected to stop its awful work by Sunday, so we expect you to be here on Monday. HERE. We’ll get you from the bus station.

All’s busy at Jesuit headquarters, we hear. Nice of them to not tell us anything. We got our own Jesuit beginner level pet, but he doesn’t always talk about HQ. We’ll make a snitch of him one of these days, you’ll see.

Have you tried adobo? What about kare kare? Try them on this rainy weekend. Three-month warmup for Christmas! Ye need fat on ye bones, boy! Don’t ever call them abs. You make us upset. Very.

Right, then. MONDAY! SUPPER!

Bradley (on behalf of Landon and Bradley)

William wanted to laugh, as he heard Bradley’s carefree voice, and to some extent, Landon’s exasperated one. But to laugh – it seemed contrary to the weight that still pressed upon his chest, the dry lasagna that seemed to stick in his throat, the memory that played the blue and red lights over and over again.

But that place. Lipa. It was close enough – the same letters, save one. Of all the places that the Sheffields had to be in, it had to be this one. Lipa.

The best he could do was a chuckle, as he ate his dinner and composed his reply.

Landon, Bradley,

I know, and I’m really sorry. It was a lot of paperwork, a storm of work to get here, and I hit the ground running. I still am running, and I’m even more sorry to say this – but the whole week next week is full.

Will an arrival on Friday evening be all right? I can spend the weekend with you (if you’ll have me) and leave Sunday night.

Yes, I did notice the knighthood. I haven’t been eating outside sandwiches and pasta, but yes, maybe one of these days, I’ll try something new (maybe when I stop running and catch up with everything?).

Tell me what you think. Really, I’m sorry, but maybe a whole weekend can make up for zero calls/emails?


William surprised himself by how fast he had written, and even more by how fast he had clicked send without bothering to check if he had said anything too impulsive. Well, there was his offer to stay with the brothers for the weekend, and there was nothing he could do, even if it felt completely out of character to do it.

But was it, really?

He had grown up with tons of playmates, playdates, weekends at his cousins’, Friday nights with his friends. A part of him had always been excited for things unknown and undiscovered, even longed for some form of play and exploration beyond mere scientific work for publication and – dare he admit it – the mere satisfaction of his peers and superiors.

The sense of fun, as it were, had burned away in the dance of red and blue lights. Thankfully – or not – it was coming back. For the first time in a long time, he no longer prayed for the other party to cancel on him.

Maybe it was because he was on his way to a town so aptly named, and she was his guardian angel, and he liked the idea-

Or did he?

William hadn’t been this questioning, this meditative for the longest time. He blamed the rain, the priests, the idea that had been placed into his head that her soul was watching over him and that it had white feathery wings to go with her golden hair.

He liked the idea, true; but now, hours after he had met the priests, his brain calmed, and his heart listened to his misgivings. There was something from his childhood, catechism, maybe, about angels –

His email refreshed, with a response, this time from Landon. William put the spoon of lasagna down and opened the message.

Good evening, William,

Apology accepted. Don’t mind Bradley, as he sulks and does not, on the whole, know much about office work and schedules. I’m not minding him as we speak.

When the rain stops by Thursday next week, we’ll be treated to a sunny weekend. So yes, do take the bus on Friday from the station Bradley mentioned (I haven’t been to the university, let alone toured Manila, so I’m much worse information-wise). Yes, you can spend the weekend here. We have a spare room.

Eat adobo! Not much for peanut butter vegetables (that’s kare kare) but Bradley eats it. Too much, with cups and cups of rice and something salty to make him expand right sideways. In case you were wondering why he finds “abs” horribly offensive – well, there you go.

Still not minding protest from Chubbs (a.k.a. Bradley).

We’ll get you more food over here, when you get here. Chubbs said to underline “when”.

Have a great weekend. Stay out of the rain.

Landon (on behalf of Chubbs)

And then, mere seconds later, from Bradley:

I Am Not Chubbs! The food is good and I walk all day. ALL DAY. Run errands, bring documents to church and back, chat up our Beginner Jesuit Absolute Novice Snitch. Landon? Always at home, always working, goes to church alone at 5 IN THE BLOODY MORNING on Sundays and doesn’t leave office chair when he gets home. WHO’S CHUBBS NOW HUH?

William laughed, a deep laugh that jiggled his belly, kept him from eating the last of his lasagna, made him stop mid-sip of his tea so that he would not snort it out his nose. Not even the Boston crowd could make him laugh like this. There had not been a single pub night that had made him really, truly laugh, with no alcohol at all in his system, with no shots to aid him in his articulation of any joke, jest, or wit whatsoever.

And so he settled the matter, with one last email. He would take the bus to Lipa – God, what a name! – spend the next weekend with the Sheffield brothers, and then go back to Manila on Sunday evening. He checked the travel instructions online, looked at photos of adobo and kare-kare, examined the recipes, tried to make heads and tails of why anyone would want peanut butter in their soup; then, as the rains pounded outside, made himself ready for bed.

The weekend was one for the monsoon books. William had thankfully bought several days’ worth of pasta and burgers, which made the hunkering down with news and Netflix much more bearable. He watched the local news with the volume turned off (it was much too noisy for his tastes), chewed on microwaved chicken Alfredo as the city became an ocean before his eyes, drank hot tea as the rain threatened to shatter his windows to smithereens. Even when the rains calmed down, even when the typhoon had supposedly left the country, the floods remained. He checked on the Sheffields, and received only a “no floods, just rain, go eat adobo because it matches the weather” in reply.

And then he checked on his staff members, and found that half the office was stuck at home. One counselor asked if he could come in late on Monday, because he had to help his wife do the groceries after a blackout spoiled all the meat in their fridge. Another counselor asked if he could miss the whole Monday, because the entire first floor of his house had been inundated by muddy flood water from the river nearby, and he had to replace some of his furniture. A student assistant was in the hospital with a fever, another student assistant was down with severe allergies, and his own secretary was caring for her mother who had slipped on the wet street and bruised her hip.

William’s heart fell, not so much at the absences, but at the idea that he had signed on to be the boss of people whose eagerness to work could be matched only by their eagerness to meet disasters head on. He would give them a lecture one of these days. Get another house, in a place where there are no blackouts, preferably nowhere near a river. Stop staying up late or you’ll get sick. Don’t walk on slippery streets.

Monday was sunny, with a touch of showers. William brought food to the office: extra boxes of lasagna for the people who had no food yet because they had not had the time to shop because of the floods, the usual boxes of pastries for the staff, and cups of instant noodles. He read somewhere between recipes of kare-kare and pictures of adobo that instant noodles were common office fare for the rainy months in the Philippines.

“You’re really a Filipino now, Sir William!” A staff member announced, as she took some bread and a cup of noodles, “And you’re wonderful!”

William wasn’t as uncomfortable with the random knighthood at that moment, although he wasn’t quite sure if stocking lasagna instead of rice and anyone’s choice of any shade of brown food made him Filipino.

“When’s your birthday?” The staff member asked.

“September 25,” he announced, surprised that he even answered the question. He was even more surprised when the staff members around the table screamed.

“That’s today!” One of the counselors exclaimed, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

Indeed, why hadn’t he? To tell the truth, he hadn’t even remembered his own birthday, hadn’t celebrated it for years. Ever since that evening in the suburbs, in the light rain, under the glow of lights and the grin of a wayward Cheshire cat – dates made no sense, holidays were mere numbers on a calendar, and he walked the hours away between the rising of the sun and glowing of the moon.

He had no time to explain or give an excuse. The counselors had disappeared, leaving only him and a student assistant, who, for her part, was on the phone and, from the looks of it, getting pizza delivered. Everyone seemed to be in on the dance of organizing meetings and getting food, no matter their rank or age. In an hour, a banner was up by the reception desk, proclaiming “happy birthday” in faded pastel letters. There were three boxes of pizza on the pantry table, a tin of vanilla ice cream in the freezer, and packets of M&Ms in the fridge.

It was a party, in mere minutes.

No one had ever done it for William, and certainly not people whom he had known for mere weeks. He could not move, let alone pull up his jaw after it had dropped. Half of him wanted to tell his staff to stop spending money, to save it for the ever-so-many rains that inundated the city. The other half felt some hidden part of him laugh, smile, jump with glee like a child that had received a train set for Christmas, indulge in scoops of ice cream like a little boy who had way too many doting grandparents. That latter half won that afternoon, through five slices of greasy pizza, followed by a cup of over-sweet vanilla ice cream that crackled with the chocolate candies his staff sprinkled over it.

He successfully steered the conversation away from him, and toward the rains and floods, which led to more conversation on typhoons, which then led to more conversation on the many different disasters that the staff members had gone through. They had been tested by floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, sinkholes, storm surges, fires that sprang from poorly maintained electric lines, boats sinking under giant waves and sending the innocent to their deaths in the depths – all they needed was a blizzard to complete their portfolio of encounters with nature.

Someone said something in Tagalog, which one counselor translated for him as, “We just laugh it all away.”

William wanted to say something about how unhealthy it was to deny themselves the right to expunge their grief, but he remembered Fr. Anthony’s words from the meeting the week before.

“Besides,” the person continued, “Crying won’t get us anything. Might as well smile and move on.”

That, he agreed with. He hadn’t cried like a baby or smiled like a child in years, and could see no sense in doing either task when there was so much work to be finished, so many papers to write, so much walking to do.

He listened to the stories, laughed (dutifully) at the jokes, picked nothing up from the language. It was a mixture of what sounded like over-stressed English, pidgin Spanish, and what he assumed was Malay. Language had never been his strong point (he hadn’t even bothered to learn his mother’s language, let alone her culture), but it was fascinating nonetheless, hence his note-taking during the professor Agnes’ class on language shaping reality. It ran contrary to everything he had been taught and what he practiced, and he did remember how some colleagues suffered beneath the glare of raised eyebrows during conferences when they presented any such related notion. Language was interesting all the same.

Except for the impromptu party on Monday, there was little to no energy in the university for the rest of the week. A general lethargy seemed to crawl out of the rainy weekend, to infect the hours with gray, to spread its bulbous fingers over the school. Some students came in for counseling: they walked in looking like blank slates, then walked out looking like some fire had been breathed back into them, while the counselors took their turn to appear as though they regretted their decision to ever try talking to young adults who seemed to whine with the language of lost children.

“A girl says she wants to kill herself every time she gets out of her theology class,” a counselor told him, during their debriefing one afternoon. William had asked for the biweekly sessions, in keeping with his promise to Fr. Anthony, “I asked her to explain why, and she said that she can’t stand all the talk about the Devil and Hell. She said it’s depressing.”

“Tell her she has to stay alive until the end of the sem so that she can get a grade and never have to go back to class again,” another counselor suggested. The rest of the counselors laughed.

“Tell her to just try the readings and read them critically, the way they’re taught in first year,” was another’s counsel, with a sip of coffee, “And then she can debate with her prof and she won’t have time to think of why she’s in the class.”

“Tell her the Devil and Hell are real,” William spoke up, this time with feet fully planted on earth, “Tell them she should study her readings, really look at the details, think of what the writers are saying and not what they’re making her feel. She has to concentrate on the new knowledge she’s getting, or the new things she can use for oral exams, or the new ideas that she can talk about with her friends.”

The counselors nodded, but William marked a rather guilty exchange of gazes – a sign that they agreed outwardly but were skeptical, and were waiting for someone to speak up on their behalf. Their unease surprised him: his research papers were public knowledge, and they were counselors working in a private, Catholic university. Why were the words “Heaven” and “Hell” so difficult to deal with?

“All right, what is it?” William asked, cordial (or at least doing his best to be so), “I know that we don’t want to hurt our students, but we also need to give them tools for the long term.”

There were nods around the table, but they were far more resigned than sincere.

“I really need to hear from someone,” William spoke, after a few more seconds went by, this time with the counselors looking down at their notes, “I don’t want to be the big boss that people obey in public but resent in private. So please, talk to me.”

The eldest counselor raised his hand.

“And you don’t have to recite for class either,” William gestured toward the counselor, “Just speak up. Go ahead.”

The eldest counselor lowered his hand slowly, and cleared his throat, eyes to the center of the table. “I know that we want our advice to always be long term, and I also know that we want our students to help themselves – we tried that, but most of our students don’t like listening to something that they can’t use in the here and now.”

William could only mouth a low, “Huh,” in response.

“I agree,” another counselor rejoined, eyes avoiding William’s, “I tried to be long term once, but the students told me that they need something they can use in the next hour.”

“Then why not have both?” William asked, forcing his voice to calm, pushing his frustration to the back of his head, “Maybe give them tools that they can use now, and then talk about the future. They need some kind of hope, something to look forward to – they need to know that their tomorrow is a when, not an if.”

The nods were gentler this time, a little more convinced, a little less cynical. He guessed that the counselors had dealt with students who had learned to be helpless, for too long a time, and in too great a volume – there had been too many cases of students who lived, and stubbornly, in the evanescent now.

“Let’s just try it again,” William allowed the tentativeness to encourage him, “It might not have worked before, but I also heard that we have a more mature set of students. Maybe it will work this time.”

Some of the counselors smiled. One even raised her hand, obviously on the verge of cracking a joke.

“I probably wouldn’t tell them that the Devil and Hell are real though,” and, with a grin, “In their universe, their professor is the Devil and they’re all in Hell.”

“And that’s why they’re real,” another counselor mused, so that the rest of the table laughed.

William would have joined them, had he not worked under Dr. Brown and with the Sheffields, had he not read all the transcripts from the Boston case, had he not listened to the recordings of minor exorcisms and tried to make sense of the ever so many languages that, for once, lost all their dramatic aura. For the moment, he smiled, and half agreed. There was no use bringing up more images of Hell for students who had to fight their host of inner demons.

That same host never seemed to tire of showing itself, baring its fangs, and taunting the counselors. There were the students who threatened to kill themselves: girls, because their mothers were pushing them too hard; boys, because their fathers were ignoring them; freshmen, because they didn’t think college would be so difficult; sophomores, because they felt isolated; juniors, because they weren’t sure if they had chosen the right major; seniors, because they were so very afraid of life outside their closed borders of home and school.

The problems came in daily, but there was nothing too alarming, nothing outside the usual that had to be brought to William’s attention, nothing that the conversations with counselors couldn’t repair. Nevertheless, the mere volume of students to be counseled made William wonder why Fr. Anthony and Fr. Matteo hadn’t stopped by again to warn him about a battle of celestial proportions.

And so his week went by, with no meetings, no Jesuits suddenly appearing to talk to him about angels and demons, no floods to disrupt his evening walks. His secretary came by Wednesday, smiling and laughing, and bright, declaring that her mom was fine (“And happy birthday, Sir William!”). The counseling team was complete by then, and no one mentioned the flood without adding a laugh on how inconvenient but amusing it was. William wasn’t sure if he had any right to cut into the sunshine his team had created for itself. He smiled instead, saving his lecture on long-term solutions for later.

There remained a general air of sleepiness and gray, nevertheless, punctuated by consultations with students and, on occasion, their professors. Landon’s forecast was correct: the dark skies and rain cleared out by Thursday, and everything seemed ready for William’s Friday departure.

He packed a knapsack of clothes, water, and pocket money, and was ready for the trip, right down to his hiking boots, which he hadn’t worn in years. They felt familiar, as he put them on with his old, hint-of-wrinkled khaki pants, and as he walked into his office looking (and feeling) like an outdoorsman.

“You’re going away for the weekend!” Was one counselor’s greeting, “Where to? Hiking? Mountains?”

William laid his knapsack down in his office, feeling a smile tug at his lips, “A place in the south called Lipa.”

“Batangas,” his secretary piped up, giving William no time to relish saying the name, “That’s just a few hours away.”

“Lipa!” A counselor piped up, from his room, which made his contribution to the conversation feel like a disembodied voice, “My wife prays to the Virgin there. Miraculous image, Mary Mediatrix of All Grace.”

William guessed that the boys had been sent there either for the distance from Manila, or for the extra layer of protection. The name of the Virgin Mary often came up in the exorcism transcripts, and always, always caused a reaction from the demons that approximated a powerful combination of disgust and defeat. He supposed that her mere presence at a site that supposedly housed her miracles would also confer some form of armor upon the Jesuits who continued to work on a project that was as dark as it was frightening.

He recalled something, at the back of his memories – something about places of great miracles also attracting demons, something about the Devil being attracted to the light it had once been, and lost. It might have been something Mrs. Brown had told him, or it might have been a fragment of an overheard conversation where Brownie shut down graduate students who dared liken exorcism to the power of suggestion.

“You’re not too far from the beach,” his secretary interrupted his imaginings, smiling widely, as though she hadn’t spent last week at the hospital with her ailing mother, “Are you hiking or swimming, Sir William?”

He was tempted to say “croquet” with a British accent, if only to remain true to his new title. The fact that he could even joke felt new to William; the idea of laughing, after all, had been alien until last week.

“I’m visiting friends,” he answered, making for his office, and then speaking from behind his desk, “I haven’t seen them in a while, so I thought I’d drop by.”

“Better leave by 5 or traffic will be bad enough for you to start heading back by the time you get there,” a counselor passed by his room on the way to the pantry, “You know how to get there, Sir?”

“Train, train, bus!” He replied, astonished at his confidence.

“Take care, then!” Was the call from all around the office, as people went off to work, and as the first few students entered. They lined up at the main reception area, chatted as they signed forms, then fell into almost pounding silence as they entered the counselors’ offices. As soon as the doors closed, the muffled conversations would begin.

No one bothered William for the rest of the morning. At lunch, he successfully pushed the conversation toward cooking: he asked his secretary about adobo, which led to a table-wide sharing of the many ways that adobo could be cooked in the Philippines, and which allowed William to avoid talking about why he was going to Lipa, and who his friends were. In the afternoon, there were more students in consults, more forms on William’s desk for him to sign, more emails requesting his presence at this or that meeting. Everyone was too engrossed in their race to escape Friday to pay him too much unwanted mind.

By 5 pm, he was out, but not completely free.

He had the way to the train stations mapped out in his head. He saw photos of the train platforms and bus depot online. He was not prepared, however, for the sea of humanity that seemed to wash across the streets and pour into the nooks and crannies of the city. No one felt too close for comfort, and there was a lot of breathing and seeing space for his six-foot frame; but there just seemed to be too many people on the road, too many people in queues for public transportation, too many people huddled and chattering about dinner, or drinks, or sales, or movies, or train tickets, or snacks, or money, or moms, or dads, or getting picked up, or getting dropped off, or a hundred other topics that escaped his comprehension of the conversations that sprang to life all around him.

And there were the vestiges of a holiday season yet to come in his experience, but fully in the present wherever he turned. There were Christmas tree cutouts, plastic festoons of holly or mistletoe draped with golden balls and red ribbons, billboards and posters that shouted out greetings from people who looked like politicians or actors (or, in a country where anyone seemed to be qualified for a public position, perhaps both). Where there were people, there was noise; and where there was no noise, there was some version of a Christmas carol playing, in a variety of pitches and drones that grated on one’s ears if heard for too long, or too often.

William recognized a few students, who called out, waved to him. He waved back, smiled back, but initiated no conversation, started no well wishing that would keep him in one place for too long. The smoke of cars, the grime of the city streets, the wind thick with concrete and plastic dust – the supposedly Christmas-decorated streets were stark and gray, contrasting with the calming green of the campus. There was no choice but to never stop moving.

William kept on walking, one foot in front of the other, striving to escape the stream of people that seemed to paint the streets with an array of colors that reminded him of how tired he truly was. He kept on walking, following the map in his head, following the procession that snaked onto stairs, down into an underground station.

He slowed down as he bought a ticket at a relatively fast-moving queue. Then he walked again, onto a deeper floor, onto a platform filled with even more queues. One foot in front of the other, into a sea of arms and legs, the way he knew he should have liked to walk. He kept on walking and would not have stopped until someone held one of the pockets of his knapsack and did not let go.

William spun around, looked down, and found the professor Agnes.

For some reason, the chaos and noise that had so accosted him in the streets disappeared into his memories. The anonymous faces were no more; he at last met someone whom he knew, but hoped he didn’t have to make conversation or engage in social niceties. It was too late in the week for obligations.

“Sorry,” she spoke up, English as crisp as the day he stumbled on her lecture, eyes far less bright, “But your back zipper is open. And hi, Dr. Lambskeep.”

“William, please,” he heard his voice come out faint, almost begging. She gestured that he should remove his bag from his shoulders. William obeyed.

“All right, hi, William, and welcome to Philippine trains,” she smiled up at him, “I had to stop you, because number one, your back zipper is open, so please check the pocket if you’re missing anything.”

He nearly laughed at her almost business-like tone. She seemed to be speaking out of some recording on the London Underground, the same one that told people that they were getting to King’s Cross Station, and to mind the gap. He did as she had told him, and found the contents of the pocket intact, despite the zipper being almost torn open. Thank goodness he had the sense to put his wallet deep inside his bag; nobody had thought to steal his raincoat and portable umbrella.

“Now zip all your backpack pockets tight and put your bag in front of you, like you’re a kangaroo carrying a baby,” Agnes continued; then, handing him a bottle of what looked like Gatorade, “You’re also really pale and your fingers are shaking. Drink this.”

William never realized how tired he was, how clammy his palms were, how his eyes seemed clouded, how his head pounded, until he started to drink, and then felt his body relax. He finished nearly the entire bottle in one go, and could not help smiling in apology at the still seemingly happy Agnes. She looked tired, but radiant, if that made any sense.

“Keep it – you’ll need it. First time on the train?” She asked.

He nodded, still not recharged enough to make a straightforward reply.

“It’s hot, sweltering, and overwhelming, and everyone looks like they’re either blank or angry,” she said, gentle. William could not help chuckling at her words. She had truly described what he had just experienced as he walked from the campus, “You need to take small breaks, to breathe, if you’re a first timer. If you don’t mind my asking – where are you headed?”

He did mind that she had asked, but he felt himself ease into the conversation, felt that he had nothing to fear. It seemed that she was the kind of person who would listen to anything and everything, but wouldn’t bother him if he didn’t want to be bothered.

“Lipa,” he replied. Strangely, the charm of the name had left him.

“The bus terminal is close to where I live,” she smiled, crinkling the skin under her eyes, “The lines will be awful by the time you get there. I’ll help you.”

She was about to say more (and he was about to refuse her assistance), until a passing student suddenly sprang free from her gaggle of friends and wrapped her arms around Agnes.

“Ciao, mommy,” was the student’s singsong greeting, “Mi manca ballare con te.”

She embraced the student back, shameless, guileless, even with William looking on. “Possiamo ancora ballare insieme un giorno, magari quando non abbia troppi compiti?

“I forgot what all those words mean, ma’am!” The student giggled.

“I said we can dance together again one day, maybe when you don’t have too much homework.”

“Oh. Em. Gee. Did you just use subjunctive?”

“I did, but I’m not sure it’s correct, so I was waiting for you to correct me!”

“I’m not that advanced in Italian! Oh – I miss you!” And, with a grin at Agnes’ companion, “Sorry! Hi, Sir. Bye, ma’am!”

Agnes gave the student one last squeeze before the girl went off to rejoin her friends, on their own queue for the train. William could only wave to the student, forget his wish to be alone, and wonder where Agnes found the energy to still be affectionate and speak another language without losing her sanity in the sea of humanity. And – dancing? What did she teach?

He was about to remark, and aloud, that no professor in the US would dream of embracing students on an almost daily basis – let alone tolerate being called “mommy” – but the train came thundering down the tunnel to where they were, and the winds of the platform began to roil and boil with sound.

He could not help groaning, at the boom of the train as it finally came through, at the screech of the brakes as it stopped, at the sensation that he was walking forward, again, with a stream of what felt like murmuring, faceless people.

Agnes stood on tiptoe, spoke into his ear, then nodded for him to comply: “Follow me.”

He did follow her, as she made her way between passengers with all sorts of knapsacks worn, indeed, like kangaroo babies. She almost danced through the crowd, until she parked herself by a wide window.

“Face the outside world and don’t look in,” she pointed to what now looked like a black wall, “We’ll be out of the tunnel in a while. Just look outside, breathe, keep your backpack in front of you, and drink when you can. Do you have water?”

He nodded, unzipped the backpack, and got his water bottle ready.

“Good. Breathe – oh,” she winced, as the train doors closed with high pitched beeps, “Earphones. Put music on. It can get loud.”

And again, he obeyed, as the train rolled out of the station, picked up speed, and boomed out of the tunnel. He found himself breathing better as he plugged his music in, as he faced the city, and as he finally saw the country that he had chosen to call his home.

Before his eyes emerged thousands upon thousands of houses, with a variety of roofs that shone in the afternoon sun, or glistened with corrugated metal, or sported anything from satellite disks to black tires. Beyond the march of houses sprang up buildings, some of them squat and gray, others glassy and slender. And beyond that, farther out, was finally some piece of sky, a horizon that blended heavy clouds with smog, a shadowy far, far away that made his randomly chosen Bach sonata sound ominous rather than poignant in his ears.

He found himself breathing, finally, easily, as the train raced forward and blurred the world before him, and as it stopped at the first station.

Agnes was looking out into the world as well, with her own ears plugged into her own music, and her dark eyes showing that her imagination was wandering off and making stories. He chanced to look at her quickly, as the train left the stop, and as it pushed into a sea of taller, newer buildings coated in gradients of black and gray.

“You ok?” She mouthed, one thumb up.

He nodded, felt himself smile. It was strange, this smile; it felt both old and new. Old in that he knew he had smiled like this a long, long time ago, before he had met the Cheshire cat on the blue and red garden path. New in that it felt warm, like something blossomed with blood in his chest.

“Ok,” he mouthed back, raising his own thumb.

She pointed to the gray building that loomed its concrete tendrils toward the approaching train.

“Mall,” he heard her say, above his music, “If you need groceries or clothes.”

He nodded. He didn’t have enough energy to say anything, let alone tell her that he didn’t mind going to the local 7-11 for anything he needed. The quick runs to the convenience store saved him the inconvenience of seeing anyone he might know, which meant conversation, which meant standing in one place for too long a time while awkwardly holding a can of Spam and trying not to look like he was avoiding anyone. Never mind the supposedly exorbitant markup. It was a small price to pay to be alone.

Something cold brushed against his nape. Part of him wanted to blame it on the air conditioning, but he remembered the meeting with Fr. Matteo, and how the sudden cold could also mean evil, and how he had a guardian angel who was telling him to be sensible.

The need to be alone – it sounded worse when he articulated all its details.

Agnes woke him out of his meditation with a quick wave of one hand, and a signal that he should keep looking outside. He had probably been staring at her for too long: she looked rather uncomfortable, and a flush blossomed on both her cheeks.

Truth be told, she was quite attractive. A first glance would mark her as pretty. A second glance would show that she knew how to care for her body, knew how to keep its shape and curves, knew how to stand like a proud dancer without resorting to bones protruding and skin stretched taut. A truly long glance revealed beauty, something European mixed with the Far East. There was a spirit of care that seemed to hover around her, that crowned her as parent queen rather than seductive princess. No wonder her students were so liberal in calling her “mommy”.

She was probably married with kids, the way most of the motherly professors were. He decided to push any kind of analysis of his observation of her to the back of his head. There was a city to be watched.

They were quiet for the rest of the ride, as the train rolled through a city dense with houses, malls, even churches and schools. There were red rusting roofs and dirty white walls, plastic Christmas trees on rooftops and first floor offices glittering with fairy lights, gleaming stained glass windows and broken panes, trucks that looked like they had been scratched with forks and cars that looked like they had new paint jobs every week. The city was so dizzying, it made headaches have migraines. No wonder Brownie nearly choked on his coffee when William broached the topic of a job in the Philippines.

He tried to listen to the voice recording through his music. The station names were both familiar and unfamiliar, from their pronunciations to their crackle over the many creaks and beeps of the train. He had read the names somewhere online, and knew only that he needed to take this train all the way to its very terminal before walking through stores and a walkway to get to another platform.

He wasn’t sure why he had never felt nauseated on the New York subway, or on the London Underground, or even on the Boston Amtrak. There had been just as many people, and even more lines, more labels to remember, more jingling-jangling trains to test his balance.

He chanced to look at Agnes again, once or twice, thrice, maybe four times, in all likelihood five. Probably six. To be truthful, ten. She made the Sign of the Cross at different times, and he could see that she had spotted different churches. He glimpsed their crucifixes and towers, their domes and sloping roofs, their white statues and gray icons, through the oceans of concrete and steel that populated the city skyline.

“Lots of churches,” Mrs. Brown had once told him, over one of their dinners together with her husband, “Sunday was always exceptionally busy. Every church was always full. Everyone was just so deep in prayer – or conversation. They were just oddly chatty at mass. And you’ll see your friends there, too! The British boys! What were their names again?”

Agnes was waving at him, over the storm of music and his memories.

“Last station,” she mouthed, nodding toward the path the train made.

He nodded, took a long drink, and breathed. It was only then that he realized that he had been grasping the railing by the windows, only then that he felt the skin over his knuckles stinging with the force of metal on them.

The ride to the final station was short. It took no more than two minutes, William thought; but the crowd exiting the train seemed to be taking too sweet a time to leave, and seemed to be even noisier than before.

Agnes pulled him back by his bag straps. She shook her head as he attempted to walk forward, and held her hand up.

“Go slow,” she took a few steps, appearing before him like a splash of blue against gray tiles, “You’ll need some breathing space before we get on the next train.”

The thought of needing more breathing space made William gulp down even more water. He was thankful for the delay: the minute he and Agnes stepped onto the platform, the train sped away, leaving them high above the city, and in the middle of cool breezes that swept across the open station.

William leaned against the nearest window, this time the immobile observer of the city. He felt the skin of his fingers sting, as blood flowed through them once again, as the cold winds played like tiny, prancing feet over his body. He felt himself breathe through his nose, into his lungs, fully taking in the view (if it could be called that). There were more buildings, this time in varying shades of brown grayed out by smoke and dust.

“Ready for a 5-minute-but-feels-like-5-centuries walk?” Said a sprightly voice at his side.

How did Agnes get the energy to ride the train system? And how could she still be happy at the end of the day, when all the faces around her seemed pale, wan, drawn, drained of identity? William laughed low, felt his spirit gain a second wind of energy, and finally realized that his feet were moving down stairs.

He understood only then why Agnes had made him wait. The crowds exiting the train had thinned out, and he could finally see the path before him, finally properly observe the ever so many food vendors that plied everything, from strange fried things skewered on sticks to fruit juices in all colors of brilliant. He could finally breathe, though he was not sure for how long.

Agnes walked alongside him, that much he knew, from his glances in her direction. She went on walking, with what he guessed to be an energy equal and identical to his. She was quiet, as they kept on making their way toward an unknown, seemingly far, far away somewhere.

All around them were the iron bars of a walkway, screening out a world of hastily assembled makeshift houses that looked as though they had been built after their owners had swum through last year’s garbage. There were stone buildings that looked like concrete walls built for the purpose of being crawled upon, swarmed upon, crowded with houses of every make, shape, build, and color. Had William been dehydrated, he imagined he would have collapsed from the onslaught of a universe on his senses.

So he kept on walking, feeling the week’s work peel away, his memories fade, his fantasy of a far, far away become more and more real. The faceless, now thickening crowd grew on him. The trains were now his ride to a world out there, unknown, shadowy but bright with nameless people to whom he owed no obligation, required to explanation.

Agnes was still at his side, brimming with energy, but silent.

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