Bradley had spotted the nodding William as the bus rolled into the station. He expected the newcomer to be jolted awake as the bus came to a stop, as passengers alighted, and as the ticketing man called out, “Lipa!”
When William did not stir, Bradley boarded the bus himself, shook his friend by an arm, proceeded to shake William by one shoulder, and, when all else failed, gave the still sleeping man two quick pats on the cheek.
“I’d say they were more like rather nasty slaps,” Landon remarked, as he and his brother walked the still groggy William to their lodgings, “You all right there? Chubbs didn’t give you a blackeye, did he?”
Bradley snorted, “Pardon the real Chubbs – hit on head as child, has no social graces while walking on a sleeping street, insists on waking population. Welcome to Lipa.”
The first thing that William had noticed as he disembarked – apart from his nightmare abruptly slipping away – was that it was already 8:30 in the evening. The second thing he had noticed was that the town was quiet, and eerily so: some lights were out in a few houses, there were very few cars or pedestrians on the roads, and the passengers whom he had seen making their way away from the bus were suddenly nowhere to be found. It was as though anything living or walking was swallowed by the night as soon as darkness fell.
The third thing he had noticed was the weight of silence, the absence of blaring lights and glaring sound, the invisible Christmas that tiptoed on the crisp, biting breeze rather than screeched from overplayed songs or decorations hung askew.
William could not help shivering as the brothers directed him down an empty street.
“You’re in a town in a province called Batangas,” Landon spoke every single syllable, “And you’ve just traveled close to a hundred kilometers south of your university.”
“A university closely affiliated with the work we do here,” Bradley interrupted him, as their group turned a corner, “So yeah, thanks for telling us that you’ve been near enough for calling and visiting, because it wasn’t lonely at all, and we didn’t need a familiar face.”
“But as you said, you hit the ground running,” Landon took his turn to cut into Bradley’s speech, with enough pointed precision to warrant a glare from the latter, “And as I said, you’re south of Manila, where the air is a bit cleaner, and people sleep a bit earlier, so there’s not much to do at night except talk.”
“Or eat,” Bradley grinned.
Landon grinned back, “Don’t mind Chubbs. He forgets how much work we have on our hands. Work, by the way, is reviewing our US files, transferring Lipa case notes, and annotating Lipa files, and then sending everything to Fr. Anthony’s office in the Vatican.”
“Which is why we eat quite a good bit. Batteries to power through filing and annotating, mind you.”
“Thousands done, more to go.”
“Which means more rice, and more of anything Landon cooks, which is wonderful.”
Landon’s cheeks flushed a shade of red that was visible even under the lamplight, “My pleasure, Chubbs,” he gave his brother a mock salute, “Therefore, Dr. Lambskeep, we wouldn’t have been able to visit you either, so it’s awful nice of you to drop in.”
William had the impression that the boys hardly spoke on topics beyond their duties to the project (or hardly spoke to anyone, for that matter, outside their ring of computers and files). They sounded as though they had been in isolation and had only recently fled their cages, with all consequent chittering and chattering that accompanied their freedom. The conversation, if anything, was amusing, and William decided to enjoy the exchange rather than contribute outright.
They went on walking for a few more minutes, in silence this time, loud enough to unlatch the sound of crickets from the canopy above their heads, clear enough for William to hear the crumbles and crackles of individual pebbles underfoot. There was something about the quiet that calmed him, washed away the garish growls of the city and its cars; but there, too, seemed to be shadows, living, breathing, watching from the bushes, peering at him from the windows of the many houses that they passed. He heard chickens clucking, a lone dog barking; he smelled something between flowers and roasted pork wafting through the air, telling him that he wanted both dinner and a bed to rest his still creaking limbs.
“Traffic treat you well?” Bradley clapped a hand on William’s shoulder, right where someone had barged into him on the train. William had to fight not to wince, “Buses can be quite crowded. Good you got a seat. I hardly go up to the city, so cheers to you for the effort.”
“I hear awful things about the traffic, so really, thank you for coming,” Landon added, “The only other human with us is a Jesuit.”
“You’ll meet him. Nice young man. Holds fort,” Bradley chimed in, buoyant.
“He’s Fr. Anthony’s trainee, by the way. He does research, the nerdy sort, the kind you scholars like.”
“Fr. Anthony’s his spiritual director, like a guide for beginner Jesuits. He’s the only one doing something for the project, so we’re hoping he stays on.”
“But we might get more priests next time, if Fr. Anthony can recruit them,” Landon’s tone sounded sharp, “And if that happens, then you could join them on the ride here and not have to worry about getting on the right bus.”
“And you’ll be here with us whenever you like!” Bradley rejoined, “Membership to the Chubbs Club is still open.”
The thought of evading the traffic – and eating good food – did appeal to William; the train rides, however, he thought he could live with, and wanted to have more of. A commute with priests lost its charm a few seconds after Landon broached the possibility.
“Speaking of food – traffic also makes you hungry, so I bet you could use some dinner,” Bradley picked up the conversation, as William could manage only a low laugh in reply, “We have some adobo and rice for you – and I’ll join you, since my brother decided to eat dinner early without telling the rest of the house.”
“Only because I want to finish more transcripts tonight,” Landon retorted, “So I can work while everyone else piles on the pounds.”
“If it’s any relief: you both look the same since last time,” William had to speak up, to keep his mouth from freezing shut in the sudden breeze that blew through the street, “It must be the stress of your deadlines.”
“And Fr. Anthony always checking on our progress,” Bradley coughed, “Speaking of: let’s have dinner or we won’t get any if he decides to ring tonight. He sometimes brings in Uncle Jorge for a conference call. You should watch our Jesuit boy when the Pope calls. Bright eyes and all shivers and fright. Kid in Disneyland!”
“Too big a fan of our uncle, Alfonso is. Don’t tell him we told you,” Landon said, just as they rounded a bend and came upon a white house, with a wooden fence and a bush of white hibiscus to mark the gate, “Welcome to the Jesuit HQ.”
Even with the warm welcome, with the branches creaking above him, the cement path crackling pebbles under his shoes, the smell of food coming from the still awake households, the sound of drinking grandfathers on one sidestreet – there was an indefinable unease that played on William. He had noticed it since he had left the bus, but had paid it far less mind than his fading nightmare. It grew, however, as the brothers and he walked through the streets. The once barking dog, he imagined, was now howling, baying, bawling. The scent of flowers, he thought, shaped itself into shadows that flitted and flew across the trees. And there were bats chirping overhead, slit-eyed cats mewling in dark shadows, slavering hounds sneering for blood.
Or it might have been the cold; his university could sometimes be stirred by biting, freezing wind, but there always seemed to be a warmth beneath the ice, a host of angels to guard his path. The cold of his haven in the city spoke of an imaginary Christmas, a dream of perfectly formed crystalline snowflakes, of flurries dancing like angels’ feathers on grey winter mornings.
Lipa, on the other hand, felt –
Barren – at least where the grounds outside the headquarters were concerned.
Dry. And yet – pointed, thorny, as though there were something right outside the gates, waiting to spring. William called on her, his angel, the girl with golden hair and green eyes, the girl whose name nearly matched the frozen environs that threatened to consume his hopes. He called on her, as he kept following his friends to their house, as the air continued to bite and gnaw at his skin.
“It’s not a lot at first glance,” Landon continued, pushing the gate open, “But you’ll like how generous the Jesuits are once you see what we’ve got.”
William made his way down a garden path, and finally felt the dread leave him, felt gratitude for his angel warm his bones.
Whatever had stalked him had stepped away. Whatever had been lurking in the shadows was gone. There was only a white house, with soft yellow light coming from its windows, with the familiar air of a Jesuit university building cloaking it in wisps of silver and gold. It seemed that a lot of work was always going on, no matter what the time: there were papers being written, data being analyzed, books being churned out. He seemed to be in a one-building school, where researchers were teachers, and where every move was written down by a team of hypervigilant scribes.
It came as no surprise then, when the front door opened to reveal, first, an interior full of books and computers; and second, the smiling face of a tall young man, who seemed welcoming of anything that passed through the door, human or otherwise.
“And it’s our Pet Jesuit!” Bradley announced, as though a playful dog had run through the doorway and pounced on him in greeting, “Meet PJ: the kid that doesn’t say anything about the university! We blame him for your radio silence.”
The kid in question laughed, then extended a hand for the shaking as the entire group entered the house. “Alfonso Sucat,” he introduced himself, “Yes, I’m PJ; and yes, it means Pet Jesuit.”
“We call him PJ the SJ,” Bradley slapped a hearty hand on the boy’s shoulder, so that the latter laughed yet again. William marked how the laugh was youthful, but there was something in the boy’s eyes that betrayed a later age, as though he were a man playing a much beloved child’s game.
“Dinner first, jokes later,” was PJ’s reminder, with an offer to take William’s bag, “Let’s all have some adobo. You must be the William Lambskeep I’ve heard so much about, and you must be tired.”
“Only a bit,” William pushed the last of his grogginess out as he finally took the Jesuit’s hand and gave it a shake (and after what he felt was an inordinately impolite and long time), “Please call me William. I slept through the trip, so if you all need to go to bed early, I can manage.”
“Early?” Came a holler of laughter from a back room, which William assumed was the kitchen. The voice was unmistakably Bradley’s, “We’ve got deadlines! Who has time for sleep?”
Indeed, the house seemed to be governed by the same deadlines that Bradley so despised: desktop computers were humming alongside quieter laptops, bulletin boards waved their texts with fingers of paper and ink, server lights twinkled on one wall, and printouts of transcripts littered another. There was a giant calendar in one corner, with nearly every date scribbled over with notes in red; and a smaller calendar mounted against the back of the front door, with to-do lists crossed out in shiny blue ink.
William held on to his backpack, despite the Jesuit’s insistence that he should hand it over and sit down. Every time he thought of sitting down, he could feel the strain in his buttocks, the pinch of the nerves in his legs, the creaking in his spine. How could he survive the trip back, the hundred miles to Manila?
PJ left him eventually, and William took his chance to examine how the brothers (and presumably, the Brother) worked. The process of transcription and annotation intrigued him, as much as the prospect of attempting it himself was frightening. He had tried listening to a few recordings, if only to get context for what he was reading; but the voices were far less revelatory, far more menacing, snarling, chewing at his memories. He much preferred trying to glean diagnoses from Brownie’s notes to working on the exorcism cases that had come their way back in Boston.
There were more, he remembered Brownie saying, as the professor lay in the hospital bed, after the brothers had bid their goodbyes and driven to Georgetown.
“We have a hundred files just for New England, William – a hundred!” had been the old man’s groan, louder than anything he had said since he had awakened, “It’s the end of the road for this project, but I wish we didn’t have to stop.”
Brownie’s heart attack had been nearly fatal. Any further exertion on the old professor’s part would waste the second life with which he had been gifted. No matter how much he insisted on continuing the work, he would not be granted a second look at the exorcism data, and the hundred files awaiting formal diagnosis would have to be turned over to the local archdiocese.
William had made the turnover himself. He could hardly see in the rearview mirror, what with all the folders in the backseat.
He recognized some of the names then, in the headquarters in Lipa, in the room awash with the data that his old boss had forcibly, unwillingly given up, the data he had fled from after his papers had been written, revised, and published. There the names were, printed in sheets and tacked to the walls, written in Post-It notes and attached to a map on one table, broken down into numbers and tallies on a separate set of sheets on yet another. He wondered if Brownie’s old notebook was anywhere nearby.
“Adobo ready for consumption!” He heard Bradley shout, on the edges of his hearing. There were plates being laid out, forks clattering against porcelain, glasses banging against wood.
William paid the sounds no attention. He took a sheet of paper nearly broken into shreds with lines of text, numbers, and circles.
He read the text and arrows, and discerned (through a haze of rising hunger) that he was looking at a network. There were words like “hell”, “cold”, and “death” connected to a variety of phrases. Begone evil spirit. She is mine. You will all perish.
There were phrases in blue, words in green, arrows printed a smoky shade of gray. It felt as though he were looking at a research framework of some sort, where all the ideas connected to each other in logical ways, and only if the viewer knew what the arrows and shapes meant.
There were sheets across the table, all with their own networks, their own inks and colors and arrows and circles and squares that appeared as though an amateur had combed through the many permutations of kindergarten classroom graphics that could be found on PowerPoint. He wished he had Mrs. Brown around to make sense of the webs of sentences that spun across the glaring sea of white – but he could not recall anything this complicated, nothing this frighteningly precise in her analysis.
“Excuse me – dinner is ready,” came a voice from behind him. It was gentle, but not mousy; and when William finally put the sheet down and turned around, he found PJ the SJ.
The Jesuit didn’t have to say much; William could feel the warmth surrounding the boy, as though he had a battalion of angels enveloping him.
“It’s never a good idea to look at data when you’re tired and/or hungry,” PJ spoke, as soon as William had trained his eyes away from the mess on the tables, “Have some adobo. It’ll warm you up.”
Either it was common knowledge that Lipa was cold, or PJ was expecting him to join in the research.
Truth be told, William was curious. Not enough to drop his bag, give up his weekend, and join the analysis, but enough to take the last sheet again.
“I’ve never seen anything like this – at least not for this project,” he felt a shot of hunger in his belly, but ignored it, “Network analysis?”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking – and no,” PJ replied, standing next to William and pointing at parts of the sheet as he spoke, “I’m trying to make maps from a transcript here, and maybe see if there are three dimensional relationships between words and phrases. I’m doing this across all transcripts, and then I’ll check if my findings match the records. All the arrows show the words that occur together: the darker the shade, the greater the likelihood that you’ll find them in the same sentence in any transcript. As you can tell, every transcript has its own unique character.”
There was no arrow at all that showed the printer working overtime to lay on dark ink. Nothing seemed to be connected: no words seemed to tell a full story, no phrases seemed to be in any kind of reasonable, rational network that would call to mind a pre-ordained frame of thinking. William looked at the sheet in his hands, then straight at the young Jesuit; then at the sheet, and then at the brother again. Landon was right: the boy with the bright smile and easy gait was a scholarly nerd.
“Are you a researcher with the university?” William asked, putting the sheet down and taking up a new one.
PJ laughed lightly, “No – but I do a lot of research,” he cleared his throat, as though embarrassed, “I’m a physicist and a mathematician, so I’m the objective lens into the data.”
“Yes – why?”
William cleared his throat, “Nothing. It’s just – unusual.”
“Well,” the Jesuit’s smile was bright, “Like I said, objective look at the data. Math could be the language that unites us all, the living and the dead.”
William suddenly remembered Agnes and her lecture on language and constructivist thought; then Mrs. Brown once again, who would have laughed any such constructivist notions away, “So did you find any patterns?”
“Nothing – yet,” PJ’s shrug was happy but resigned, “I thought it would be – well, easy.”
“I know a statistician. She didn’t find any connections either, so you’re in good company,” William retorted, when PJ did not seem confident enough to go on, “She wasn’t with us in our last project, but she helped her husband. I used to work with him. He had a heart attack, so we had to stop everything and give the files back to the Boston archdiocese.”
“Ah – Dr. Brown,” PJ put in, so that William could not help putting the sheet down, “Bradley told me about him.”
“Bradley tells PJ everything and PJ says nothing back and keeps asking questions!” was the sneer from the direction of the kitchen, where Bradley now stood, holding a plate of what looked like rice, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re a Jesuit spy. Now: Dinner, both of you!”
William didn’t know how much he missed having company for dinner until that night. He had planned to simply eat his way through what he perceived would be an ordeal of socializing, but he discovered that he still had some capacity for talking, even joking with a full dinner table. Bradley, he found, had been through long hours of solemn exorcism as a child, and had worked all his life for the project, but with joy equaled only by his voracious appetite (something he admitted wholeheartedly, given that Landon was hard at work on his laptop on one side of the room, with ears plugged into an audio file, and transcribing without stopping).
“Keep saving up your fats, Chubbs,” was Landon’s rare contribution to the conversation, as he paused his work and stood up to drink water, “I hope you like the adobo, William.”
Landon’s adobo, William found, was the basic pork and chicken simmered in vinegar and soy sauce, cooked with an abundance of pepper and garlic, and served hot over rice. It was both soothing and flavorful, and it was new without being overwhelming. Landon had addressed him with the question while he was busy chewing on a mouthful.
“We love it, thank you!” Bradley grinned, “Landon does all the cooking around here. He’s learning fast. Just talked to someone at the church, and now he’s whipping up meals like a regular Filipino. And I eat everything, just like a regular eater of anything.”
“It really is good,” William said over mouthfuls (and between servings), “I haven’t had anything like it.”
“Then stop eating lasagna and sandwiches and live a little!” Bradley gestured to Landon with dramatic flair, “Hire that Sheffield brother as your cook so he can do a bit of traveling instead of decorating the house!”
“Well said, Bottom Feeder,” Landon retorted, removing an earpiece from one ear, “This house decoration also produced more transcripts than you.”
“And this Bottom Feeder gets more sleep,” was Brandon’s reply.
“I can ask the Jesuits to bring you food,” PJ put in, as he rinsed plates over the sink, and spoke over the exchange of sneers and puns between the brothers, “Our older priests love to cook. They’ll gladly bring you a banquet if it means feeding someone who helps students.”
William discovered that PJ was a scientist who had found his way to the priesthood. The one whom the brothers so casually referred to as their Jesuit pet was actually around the age of everyone who sat at the table that night. PJ had been a student at the university where William served, then a Jesuit novice, scholastic, and now, researcher.
“I’ll be on campus next semester, when the work here winds down,” PJ rejoined the group at the table, after clacking away at computers in the other room, “I don’t think I’ll find any connections anyway – not that I’m assuming I know the answers to my questions.”
“This one’s a genius,” Bradley took his turn to wash the dishes, and made William sit by instead of contributing to the chore, “I mean, like all Jesuits, of course. But we’re extra proud because we’ve got a new researcher on board. Now all we need to do is tour the country together and we have ourselves a project.”
“I shouldn’t be on that trip, Bradley,” PJ seemed to be controlling his whine, “I’m not as invested as you are.”
“And that’s why you’re the best person for the job,” Landon stood up to go to the living room, and reached over to muss PJ’s hair up, “Fr. Anthony’s words, not ours.”
“Unless you really don’t like us,” Bradley sang, from his post by the sink, “I mean, no one likes people who work on exorcisms. We’re scourges on the church, people who expose tales that no one has any explanations for, people who scare children. How long have you been with us? One year? Two years? Sick of us yet?”
“Three months!” was PJ’s almost incredulous answer.
“Feels like several lifetimes!” Bradley mock whispered to William, “Oy, but seriously, PJ’s a genius. Just needs to listen to his spiritual director.”
PJ was about to say something, when the computer from the other room beeped an alarm. He sprang off his chair, said something about an algorithm and printing, and disappeared.
“Always working, always calculating, finding nothing,” Bradley sat at the dinner table again, and handed William a glass of what smelled like Scotch, “Relax, Dr. Lambskeep. I’ll do the entertaining while my biological brother perfects the art of detailed transcription, and the Jesuit brother assembles the attempt at rationalization of this research.”
William didn’t know how much he could talk about himself, with only a glass of Scotch, and with Bradley simply listening. He delightfully surprised himself, however, half an hour later. He found a sympathetic audience in Bradley and, soon, PJ: he talked about his childhood in Chicago, his masters and PhD theses, his research, and how he moved to the Philippines.
In between, he took questions, and was astonished at how patient, and forgiving, he was. PJ had been candid, and had remarked how he had imagined a William Lambskeep to be some white man with grey eyes, not a tall half-Korean.
“The Scotch says I should forgive you for that,” William was not sure why he suddenly had a sense of humor (and, contrary to his words, with hardly any alcohol in his system).
“The Scotch also says I’m sorry,” PJ retorted, shamelessly grinning over his second glass.
Despite his own flash of articulation, William still left out much, including the incident that he had been so roughly and vividly reminded about on the ride to Lipa. He wasn’t quite sure how Bradley and PJ would take it: that he had been at a crime scene involving a friend and the girl he had once loved, that he had heard things that no rational words could explain, that he had an angel to watch over him.
The passing thought made him tremble inwardly. Girl? Once loved? He felt it was a disservice to the Woman who guarded him in her Hereafter.
The conversation turned to the students, as William came to the part where he talked about his first week in the Philippines. Yes, the kids were a bit less hardy than he had been used to when he was much younger, but they were far warmer, even affectionate, and sometimes oddly so. They seemed to seek parents, or guardians, or mentors, or saviors, in everyone they met; they seemed to see family only in their friends, authorities in their teachers.
“I don’t know if ‘authority’ is the right word,” PJ put in, springing back into the kitchen after a quick jump into the living room and, from the sound of it, another failed rendering of his word maps, “They don’t like listening at lectures – and then when you ask them if they understood anything, they’ll say yes – and then they fail their exams, and they complain.”
“But we studied,” Bradley sang in a voice that rang and floated with high pitched whining, and low pitched mock sobbing, “We studied all night! And we deserve a high grade! Our parents paid for an A!”
That was when William finally took a more generous sip of the Scotch. Bradley’s words had been so exact, his tone so precise, he swore he heard the voices of all the students that had come a-consulting the week after exams. And yet, there were exceptions –
“Ok, so maybe – there are some students that look for an escape from the accountability,” he spoke above the sting of Scotch on his nostrils, “But I’ve also met some that look like they really like their professors. Hug professors even. Not something American students would normally do.”
“Hug?” Bradley laughed, “A hug to squeeze out an A?”
PJ laughed, sipped his own glass of Scotch, and pointed it at Bradley, “A hug and a chokehold and an A under duress.”
“You’re a violent Jesuit.”
“Also used to be a gamer.”
“Did they have to wash out your brain when you did seminary?”
“And that’s why we like you,” Bradley reached over and shook PJ’s hair out of order once again, “You’re our best Pet Jesuit so far. Don’t leave us.”
PJ refilled Bradley’s glass with a glare, but with not a word in response.
William admitted that the exchange was charming (especially in his slightly tipsy state), but the thought of students violently extracting grades from their teachers was not easy to take without an argument.
“I know one of the professors,” he spoke up, as soon as PJ came back with a bowl of peanuts (and a fresh groan about how his latest word map rendering crashed and he had to run it again), “I’ve seen how she talks to the students, and they respond quite well. I mean, they hug her, she hugs them back, they shout, ‘We love you, ma’am!’ and it really seems – well, real.”
“That’s easy because she’s a girl,” PJ held up a peanut, as though to stress a bullet point, “Little harder for the male professors.”
“I – know what you mean,” William chewed on his own share of the peanuts, “Point is: the students are demonstrative, they’re affectionate, they have all these emotions and needs all bottled up, and they can sometimes go to their teachers – same as Boston, but the kids over there don’t hug. Not that it’s bad. Just – unusual.”
“And just so you know, it’s unusual here, too,” PJ said, eyes to the ceiling, as though he were scouring through his memories, “There are very few people on campus that can be affectionate without creeping students out. One of them is like their ‘mommy’ and they call her that, but they would never do that with anyone else.”
“Sounds clingy,” Bradley mused.
“She does teach lots of students every sem – dance, communication, research.”
“And publishes her research.”
“Sounds very busy.”
“Was also a scientist.”
“Called her that, but Agnes will never admit it.”
“Wait – Agnes?” William felt all the tipsiness melt away, “Agnes Zamora? You know Agnes?”
“We’re like, really good friends,” PJ lifted his glass, as though in a toast to the absent girl, “But yes, everyone knows Agnes.”
“I don’t!” Bradley raised his hand, kindergarten-style, “Picture, please.”
PJ pulled a phone out of his pocket, scrolled almost off-handedly, showed the photograph to William for confirmation, then slid his phone over to Bradley’s side of the table. It all happened in seconds, with hardly a sound, and with only a brisk, “This Agnes Zamora?” from PJ directed to William.
William recognized her immediately: bright smile, shining eyes, thick eyelashes, glow. There were other people in the photo, PJ among them, but William was drawn to Agnes immediately. Perhaps that was what made her students gravitate toward her with no hesitation: there seemed to be a light around her, as though she were carrying a torch of golden fire.
Even Landon seemed to agree. He was on his way back from the front room and its computers, when Bradley raised PJ’s phone and showed his brother the photo.
“Cute,” Landon remarked, tiny smile playing on what had been a serious countenance since he had met William at the bus stop.
“She can speak Italian,” PJ grinned.
Landon threw the Jesuit what looked like a sneer of both disbelief and annoyance, “I hate Latin languages,” he walked back to his transcription post, eyes on the phone his brother still held, “So – whose girlfriend?”
“No one’s,” PJ answered, then paused, eyes wide, as though he had spoken too much, “Long story, hers to tell, won’t continue.”
William did not stoke the flames. Very few circles of (well-meaning, mature) men would talk so loosely about a woman whom they all did not know on equal footing. But he was curious about Agnes, now that he had found out that she was not married, traveled miles every day to teach, and had helped him randomly on what appeared to be the day densest with people.
He was also curious on another count. The Agnes in the photograph seemed to be happier, but in a way that sunlight illuminated blank sheets of white paper. The Agnes he knew possessed the kind of joy that arose from candlelight coming through the stained glass windows of a home that had known wonder, kindness, and heartbreak. There was happiness there, he knew, but it was gentler, less glaring, even motherly and beckoning.
“So how do you know her?” PJ asked, as Landon left the dining room once again, but not before stopping for a handful of peanuts on the way out.
“I – uh – kind of accidentally sat in on her class on my first day,” William finished his Scotch, but kept his hand over the glass as PJ reached for the bottle, “And I’ve seen her on campus. She also helped me get to the bus stop.”
“Oh, that’s right,” PJ put in, “That’s near where she lives.”
“Take her with you next time!” Bradley added, voice slightly rolling over its vowels, “She can talk to Landon about her hopes and dreams in Italian and piss him off.”
“Heard that!” Was the truly pissed off voice from the living room.
Bradley chuckled, then lowered his voice, “He hates Latin languages because he has a hard time with all the subjunctive – things that he has to study,” the boy waved one hand randomly, as though looking for the words in the air, “But if he calls a girl ‘cute’, then that means something. Bring her so he can talk to her before he implodes!”
“Woah there, matchmaker!” PJ took Bradley’s empty glass out of his reach, and to the sink, “Time to sleep now!”
“Since William won’t help,” Bradley let out a belch this time, “Oy, Pet Jesuit-”
“No, we are not randomly bringing people to Lipa, Bradley.”
“It’s not random! It’s really quite deliberate.”
“Not part of the team!”
Landon’s reprimand thundered across the walls, “Did Bradley drink too much Scotch again?”
His brother mimicked him silently, “Oh you know you need her,” Bradley batted his eyelashes, “She can be Landon’s Official Mood Lightener.”
PJ had been washing dishes and glasses, and he spun around with a fiery glare at Bradley, wordless. Even William was tempted to say something to sober the boy up, although he was not quite sure whether to calm the apparently irate PJ or scold the obviously inebriated Bradley.
Bradley grinned, burped, and grinned even more, like a child that knew it had gone too far, but was begging for more leeway to push the envelope even further, “It’s your job to send her a message to just meet with us -”
“That’s not my job, and it’s not anyone’s,” PJ turned around again and resumed washing glasses, “Go to bed, Bradley.”
The conversation died, and mainly because Bradley had fallen asleep with his head on the table. There was silence in the dining room for a while after that, broken only by the rush of water down the drain behind William, the low drone of computers in the living room, the tick-tock of the clock on the wall as it showed the hour getting closer to 11.
“Let’s get you to your room,” PJ finally spoke to William, clearing the table, and stifling a laugh as Bradley snored, “Don’t worry about him. He’ll be up and sending files later. The Scotch just hits him quick, and he says things he doesn’t mean.”
“Sorry!” Came, as though in confirmation, from beneath the pile that was the sleeping form of Bradley. The single word disappeared as the boy began snoring again.
William felt different layers of relief as PJ led him from the dining hall, to a room in the opposite wing, and with hardly a word in between. It was comforting not to have to talk to anyone, to have a room to himself in a house full of people, to know that he was under no obligation to bring a girl to the house the next time he came. His hand closed into a fist as the last thought passed through his head. Agnes, he figured, was not one to be so readily given as though she were a mere gift to bestow.
William wasn’t sure what his last words to PJ had been. All he knew was that he had unpacked his bag in seconds, changed into his bedclothes, and turned out the lights. There were no dreams or nightmares that night, no red and blue lights flashing, no cats grinning, no hounds baying, no blood pooling at the feet of a friend whose voice had spoken with the anguished wails of a thousand souls.