Agnes was right: the crowds only got worse. The trains were smaller, the stations grimier, the people more deliberate in their race to get on board. This time, William wondered how Agnes did not get knocked over every time someone seemed to be charging right into them. He guessed that he would have tons of bruises by the time he got on a carriage, what with the bulls and goats that seemed to make up the crowd of this particular train line.
“Do you plan to make this trip often?” Agnes asked, as they finally got onto the platform.
He still wasn’t in any mood to respond with details or cordiality. The knocks and encounters with the arms and shoulders of everyone around him had also pushed out any kind of human word from his vocabulary. William simply shrugged.
Agnes sighed; whether in commiseration or frustration, he knew not. She simply raised her ID in reply.
“If you plan to keep using the trains, then get this blue card the next time you buy a ticket,” she raised her voice as the train started to roar into the station, “Store thousands of pesos and you won’t need to keep lining up.”
He had no chance to answer, much less comment on how it was practical but dangerous to carry around something of great value that could get lost or stolen. They both boarded another full train, with Agnes squeezing herself through the crowd, and William simply following and doing as she had instructed. Look forward. Breathe deep. Look out onto the horizon.
The two words would have alarmed William in any other place, in any other space. Today, he had little choice but to heed them, and, indeed, obey his companion.
Agnes and he stood side by side, silent as they had been on their previous ride, looking out at another mishmash of buildings and houses. This part of the city felt older, but warmer, as though the people here lived in the midst of history, bombings, graves, and wars, but recorded nothing, remembered nothing.
And behind William, the sun began to set, slow and low beneath the shadows, gold and blushing against the whitewashed walls, mildewed and moldy in its crawl across mortar and cement.
William felt the anonymity grow on him once again, even as a few men in the carriage stared at him almost shamelessly, even as a young girl began to converse in the loudest, most discordant tones with her companion as she cast smiling glances his way. Nothing stirred in William: not anger, not embarrassment, not arousal, nothing. He simply wanted to get on a bus to Lipa.
The train packed more and more people as they passed more and more stations, until William felt that he was about to be smashed against the window. Agnes signaled that he should keep looking outside, keep breathing, keep training his eyes on the buildings far beyond the concrete pillars and painted walls before him. Some of the men exchanged looks with each other, whispered amongst themselves as they watched William. The girl continued to giggle and smile, but her laughter faded as William paid her no mind; she exited the station just as Agnes nudged him.
“Next stop,” she mouthed.
He hadn’t realized how deep in thought he had been. He had heard nothing of the stations that he had passed, knew only that he had seen a city that sprouted both glass-sparkling buildings and what appeared to be ancient monuments. When the train stopped, he followed Agnes, out of the station, down stairs, almost ready to go out bursting into the world and into the final leg of his journey – until he saw the fresh ocean of people spilling out onto the streets in a winding queue for what looked like a swarm of machinery.
It looked as though a parade of bodies had wound upon itself several times over, before wrapping several buses in human skins. There was no pavement, no asphalt to be seen, only boxes and backpacks and bulky, misshapen things that looked as though their owners had packed up half their lives and were fleeing the city forever.
And this time, the carols were blaring and booming, as though reminding everyone to go home for Christmas, or they would be tortured forever with plastic holiday decorations and annoying bass notes of remixed songs if they stayed on the streets a minute longer.
Agnes stopped William before he could even think of sneering. She held up both her hands, told him to wait, made a sign that he should keep his eyes on his things, and sped away into the crowd. William obeyed. Again, no other choice.
He could see Agnes talking to a man in a red and white jacket. The girl had the same bright eyes, the same sprightliness when she had first offered to help him. William could see her gesticulating, smiling, then pointing at him. When she returned, she looked as though she had simply come back from a trip to the corner bakery to pick up some bread.
“That was Don. He’s the guy selling tickets,” she shouted above the din of conversations and cars, “He says they’re all out for this trip, but they’re ok for the next one. That’s Bus 31 and it leaves in 30 minutes.”
William could only nod. A car sped through a mere foot away from him, and nearly collided with a motorbike. What ensued was shouting, honking, screaming, a motorbike tearing through the air with a deep wail, a car driver shouting something that sounded as though it both begged for and avoided translation.
When he turned to Agnes again, she was smiling apologetically, as though she had been responsible for the near-mishap.
“I reserved a seat for you, and he knows what you look like,” she went on, “You just need to get on 31 and pay him 80 pesos, and he said he’d drop you off at Lipa.”
William nodded, breathed through his mouth, and winced as he felt his throat dry out from what smelled like smoke.
“You don’t want to be here,” Agnes coughed, “Follow me. It won’t be a long ways away.”
It truly wasn’t a long ways away, but the almost random crossing on a major highway, then a gaggle of jeepneys snorting out a stream of black clouds, then another queue of people for what he assumed was the train for the direction opposite that from which they came – there were just too many people, too many faces, too many hurrying feet and chafing voices, too much of so many, so much.
They entered a Dunkin’ Donuts – William breathed easily at something recognizable – and finally escaped the storm of humanity. He ordered water and a sandwich, she ordered coffee, and they settled themselves into the table farthest from the door.
William felt himself breathe, felt the world loosen its hold on him. Going off to see the Sheffields felt like both the best and worst idea of all time: he looked forward to seeing people he knew (quite the surprise), but the effort that it took to merely get on a train seemed to seep the energy out of this day and the week to come. All he wanted was a bed; he had already finished the world’s smallest ham and cheese croissant, after all, and was prepared to curse Landon and Bradley to kingdom come (or invite them to try their patience and take their turn to travel to the university, he was not quite sure which).
Thank goodness for a guardian angel who used her powers to keep him safe. He could almost see her through the clearing haze of his thoughts: blonde hair, green eyes, rosy skin, bright smile, laughing as her thick wings shielded him from the rest of bullish, goatish humanity.
And again, there Agnes was, waving her hand in front of his face.
“You have ten minutes before you have to get on the bus,” he heard her say, as soon as he came to, “Do you have enough water for a two-hour trip?”
William nodded, feeling the muscles in his neck grow softer, as though someone had given him a massage. His back followed, then his arms, and finally, his lower body. All the fatigue had swept away; or, more precisely, melted into his bones, there to remain a memory in the form of bruises and sprains. He even got his voice back, felt some energy rise into his blood.
“I think I can manage,” he couldn’t afford to smile yet, but he did feel one corner of his mouth turn upward with the assistance of what he assumed was angelic force, “I can cross back to the station.”
Agnes was bright still, but not as bouncy as before. He guessed that she, too, had finally lost her buoyancy after hours of squeezing into crowds and navigating wayward vehicles.
“You sure?” She asked, eyes narrowed.
“Bus 31, 80 bucks, Don the ticket guy,” William felt quite proud of himself. Even after the storm of chattering, and smoke, and blaring car horns, and streets that reeked of history untended, his memory had not failed him. Thank God for a special guardian angel who knew how to keep his brain running.
Agnes hesitated for but a moment, then nodded as she crumpled her empty coffee cup in one hand, “Awesome,” her voice was bright but faint, “You take care – and see you when I see you!”
He knew that she had thrown him a brisk smile, and had already started to lift her bag onto her shoulder. It wasn’t right that she should leave so soon, William thought, especially after she had served as his earthly escort on the train rides; he wasn’t sure if guardian angels got jealous, but he hoped that his didn’t mind that he had another girl in her presence.
“Agnes,” he spoke up, feeling his voice grow round.
She had already stood up and was ready to make for the door, when she turned back.
“Uh – thanks,” he managed, feeling the last of the ham and cheese dry out suddenly in his throat, “I mean – thank you. Thank you for making sure I got here. Wouldn’t have made it otherwise.”
The words came out low at first, then staccato and beat-like, before collapsing into what sounded like a sigh. He hoped he didn’t look as though he hated his new home; to tell the truth, now that he was breathing and far away from the crowds, he found the city strange, welcoming, even interesting.
“No problem,” she smiled, “See you around campus.”
He held up one hand in a brisk wave, and watched Agnes go. Should he have told her to take care? He wasn’t sure what the protocol was in this country when you had only one person in front of you, instead of a whole office of counselors who bestowed daily knighthood. Whatever he had planned to say came too late; she had already walked out of the store, and he wasn’t sure which direction she had gone.
Any breach in etiquette didn’t bother William for the rest of the day, or even for the rest of the weekend. He forgot about the ride as soon as he got on the bus, paid the widely smiling Don for his ticket, and got into a seat close to the front. Any plan he had for seeing what the highways were like was shut down. He simply fell asleep.
Surprise. He was usually wide awake on any long trip. Tonight, as the streets beyond his window darkened with the coming night, and as the bus filled with people at each stop, his body lost all the tautness that had allowed him to withstand the wash of humanity, to stand against the hours of trains and waiting.
He slept. It felt like days, but it had been mere hours.
For the first time since it had happened, he dreamed of the night of red and blue in its fullest, clearest form.
And he remembered her. He tried not to say her name. The last time he did, he woke up, screaming it out. He wasn’t sure how the rest of the world on this side of the planet would take a foreigner suddenly bursting into hysteria in the middle of a crowded bus.
To say her name would be to remember even more things, better things, the things that had made her end so awful, so unjust.
So he told himself, in the shackles of his dream, to be quiet.
He saw her as a memory first, as a girl, at a restaurant with sparkling silverware, where the tables were covered with white linens that bounced back candlelight. Her words were soft, but they blasted into his ears.
“I’m really flattered, but no.”
And the kiss of death, as the kids called it.
“Let’s just stay friends, ok?”
Nobody would laugh so flippantly if they could see what he had seen, on that night, years and years ago. There was the rain, coming down, drenching his shoes, pushing up dust. There were leering cats, snarling dogs, a giant something whipping the air with webbed wings. There was screaming over sirens, pitter patter of water over crickle crackle of static – and there were the lights flashing red and blue, red and blue, red and blue.
He had driven to the scene as fast as he was legally allowed to go. All it had taken was a phone call, a growl, a hiss for a savior from someone who had once been a friend, somehow intelligible behind weeping and wailing, beyond the sudden surge of William’s heart into his ears.
Even in that moment, in his dream, William could feel the skin of his face freeze as his blood fled to his hands. He could feel his fingers fight to grip the steering wheel, his feet push down hard on the accelerator, his eyes strain from shifting too quickly between his speedometer and the road.
And the voice.
Henry, but not. Henry whom she said she loved, but a whole other person, creature, thing.
“He needs you here,” was all that Not Henry said, over the crackle of the mobile phone lines, over and over in William’s head, “Now, or it’s done.”
What did that even mean? And who, in their right minds, talked about themselves in the third person? What kind of university-trained, university-appointed psychotherapist could even speak so vaguely, so –
William could still feel the dread in the pit of his stomach, the burning in his chest, the cold in his nape, as he heard the voice once again.
A dog. A beast. A thing not of this world.
The cops later told him that the rain, the cell reception, William’s own fear – anything could have changed Henry’s voice, could have made it more guttural, could have rendered it less human.
William could only nod, agree, brush off the cops’ offer to see him home. Deep within, where the encouraging words and reassurances couldn’t go, where his doubts remained and spoke and festered, he knew that the animal on the other end of the line was not in any way, shape, or form the Henry that She had loved.
He couldn’t even recognize the Thing that stood on the front stoop, that blinked back unseeing eyes at the play of red and blue lights.
Eyes of the deepest, darkest black, the kind that threatened to swallow the world into a pit of wailing, of gnashing, of teeth sharpened by the groans of the damned.
Even in his dream, the eyes blared rage into the night.
But then, and even now, William paid far less attention to the eyes than he did to the figure that lay sprawled across the porch, in a pool of bubbling blood interrupted by The Thing’s footprints.
It was She – face down, hair in tatters, skin pale, he could still recognize her. Henry, his friend, he could not find beneath the growling beast whose gaze pierced into William’s tears.
He would know her anywhere. Even in a pool of her own blood, he would recognize her.
The Thing on the porch said nothing as the officers read It its rights. The Thing seemed to watch William even as it was led away, to a cop car, under the watch of guns trained on what William knew to be an enemy no bullets could ever touch.
William felt something burn in his ribcage, felt it send bolts of electricity, jolts of ice into his veins. Felt himself sink to the ground, his knees in the mud, his shoes take in rain. He could only hear the dogs howling, could see a nearby cat seemingly glaring, glowering, grinning at him, like the taunting Cheshire in the book that had so occupied his childhood.
The cops lifted him by the elbows, brought him to his car, sat him down, gave him something that vaguely tasted like powdered chicken soup in a plastic cup.
Did he know Henry?
Of course – friend, co-worker, soon-to-be-church-married to one of their grad students. The last one made the soup taste like concrete in his throat, made his tears taste bitter on his tongue.
Had Henry ever shown signs of wanting to kill someone?
No, never. Henry was the happy one, the shining star, a promising scholar in the research group. The one She loved, the way anyone would love a bright, boisterous boy who made earning a living look so easy.
William hoped he didn’t sound jealous. He tried to concentrate on the play of lights on the pavement then.
Red and blue. Red and blue. Red and blue.
Red and blue blending in a fresh gush of tears.
Someone handed him a towel; William used it to wipe his face.
How did William know that he had to go to Henry’s house?
A phone call – Henry said William was needed, and his voice sounded angry, beastly.
The officers tried to explain the voice away. William nodded, kept his eyes to the ground, held them there as something wrapped in black tarp was carried out on a stretcher, locked into the ambulance, driven off into the light rain.
He hid his face in the towel, felt it drench with tears and rain, felt the fibers sting his skin. He wiped his face again, not minding what the officers would think of a grown man weeping at a crime scene.
A cop said sorry, gave him a pat on the shoulder, said that they could go to the precinct and he could talk there.
The last thing William wanted to see was a metallic room. He shook his head, felt something creep out of his sobs. It sounded like he was telling the cops to get on with it because he needed to go home and rest.
A pause. He knew the men around him were weighing his words, silently consulting with each other, riffling through their training manuals in their heads.
“Ok – let’s just get this over with here – who exactly called you?” One officer asked.
All the phones in the house had been tossed out back, burned in a bonfire that had lasted all afternoon. No one had thought of calling the cops. Not until night had fallen, and the sound of a roaring lion and howling dogs came out of the house.
“Probably had the TV on real loud,” a cop offered. He didn’t sound too sure; William could hear the shaking in his voice.
“So who called you, Mr. Lambskeep?” Another cop pressed, as though to drown out the rush of officers into the house behind them. William could hear the clicks of camera shutters, the drawn out whoosh of flashbulbs, the low curses of officers as they surveyed what William assumed was a porch carpeted in blood.
He found out, much, much later, and in a half-inebriated state, that she had been stabbed so many times, the investigators did not know where her flesh ended and the blood began. The stabs had been made so fast, so forcefully, as though an electric blade had done the job. But it was just one man, wielding just one knife –
One creature with one weapon, with a voice that sometimes whispered from the depths of William’s nightmares.
So who called William? The officer asked a third time.
William showed them his phone.
There was Henry’s number, registered from an hour ago, sometime around sunset, right when the bonfire of phones had finished raging in the backyard.
The cops shook their heads. One said something about a glitch in the network. Another gave William a cup of water. No one attempted to correct him, or agree, or joke, or even ask another question.
What did he say? A cop asked, voice forcibly firm.
William repeated the words, feeling the tears pour once again, the sobs rise to his throat, the image of her bloodied body burn into his memory.
The officers asked him to repeat the words. He obeyed. He wasn’t sure what they were looking for. Conspiracy? Prior knowledge? Intent to harm? He had wanted only what was best for her, had smiled when she had told him that Henry and she were dating, had dutifully wished them well when they had announced their engagement. He had wanted nothing but good things for her, for her to be happy, even if it broke his heart.
The officers gave up, and asked who else they could talk to at the university. William named his boss, his co-workers, the secretaries, everyone who would later be at Her funeral and tell him how sorry they were, how she had been such a bright and gentle light, how they had never thought that Henry could do such a thing, and how was William holding up?
He was – simply holding up, and he forced himself to hold himself up in the five years that followed. He moved offices, left the state, heard about Henry’s conviction, heard that Henry had been remanded to a mental institution for the rest of his life, heard that her family had accepted that the man to whom they had entrusted their daughter was simply criminally insane and would be so until the day he died.
There was nothing in Henry’s files, nothing in his past to show that he had any motive to kill her. He had simply loved her, everyone said – loved her from the time they had met at the office, to the time they had gone on their first date at the local farmer’s market, to the time someone had read Tarot cards for them and predicted that they would be together, to their engagement – Henry had loved her and then had suddenly fallen off the wagon without anyone noticing.
William had not thought about Henry in five years. He had simply wept for days for Her; then moved away, tried his best to keep moving until he was far, far away from that night of red and blue, red and blue, red and blue.
He heard someone call her name.
But it was loud, like it had been shouted by someone who wanted to slap him awake.
And slap, someone did, at least gently.
“Wake up, William, lad,” a familiar voice said, piercing through the veil of his memories, “You’re in Lipa, you’re still on the bus, and everyone’s waiting for you to get off.”