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All Nighter

Irene and I are still at work even though it’s 10 pm on a Friday night.

“Why do I keep dating assholes?” She asks.

“Because you have low self-esteem.” I reply.

She glares at me, “I do not.”

“I told you not to date people you work with.” I say smugly.

“But you dated Jennifer!” She replies.

“I dated her after she announced she was leaving in 30 days. And she wasn’t on my team. In fact, she didn’t even work on the same floor as me. You on the other hand sit right beside your ex. How’s that working out for you?”

“Horrible. Why can’t I find a nice guy to be with? Where are all the nice guys?”

“They’re behind the assholes that keep finishing first.”

“What?” She looks confused.

“Because nice guys finish last…” I explain very slowly. “And assholes finish first… therefore nice guys are behind the assholes… which is why you can’t see them… makes sense?”

“Oh.”

“You’re not the brightest bulb in the chandelier are you?” I laugh.

“Assholes like you are the reason it’s hard to find nice guys.” She says.

Nice guys, in my experience, are easy to make money out of. I take the train to work everyday and if I don’t feel like reading a book, I’m usually playing poker with other passengers that take the train regularly. The nice guys I play poker with are predictable, risk-averse, and extremely easy to read. They can also be bitter and passive-aggressive.

But what I find fascinating is that whenever these nice guys I play poker with are doing well and have made a lot of money, they always keep playing until they lose everything. They’re never content with what they’ve won and I don’t think it’s because they’re greedy and they want to win more, the real reason is that they have low self-esteem and they truly believe that they don’t deserve to win. It’s sad right? They believe they’re losers and they keep playing until that belief is confirmed.

“Don’t blame me.” I reply. “You had a perfectly nice boyfriend in high school. Until he started sleeping with his sister.”

She cringes, “Why did you bring that up?”

“Do you remember walking in on them–”

“Stop!”

“And the best part was when they went to Comic Con dressed up as Jamie and Cersei!” I laugh.

“I hope they burn in hell.” She says, her voice full of venom.

Irene and I have a lot of work to catch up on since we were on vacation last week. We were with our school friends in Las Vegas. Our trip wasn’t as crazy as the movie Hangover, nobody stole a tiger or got beaten up by a naked Asian guy. But it had been so long since we’d all been together so we just played cards and partied hard. Irene got so drunk one night that she paid a cabbie with a thousand dollar bill instead of a hundred. She realized her mistake the next day. She’s the only one in our social circle who doesn’t gamble but she lost more money in Vegas than all of us combined.

We work quietly for the next half an hour.

“Do you know about the girl who was killed in this building?” Irene asks, breaking the silence.

“How do you know about that?”

“I came across an old news article when I was googling our office.” She says.

“It’s a horrific story.” I say.

“The article I read was too short.” She says. “All I know is that a long time ago there was a girl who wanted to become an artist but her father wanted her to become a doctor. She wouldn’t obey him so he murdered her.”

“Well, that’s all there is to it.” I reply.

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“Okay fine. Jennifer told me the whole story. It’s dreadful.”

“You don’t think I can handle it?” She looks at me fiercely.

“It’s not that. It’s just that if I tell you, I’ll have to relive the whole thing.”

“Just tell me.” She demands.

“Okay.” I sigh. “So a long time ago this office building was a residential building. In one of the apartments there lived a girl who was exceptionally talented at drawing. Her dream was to go to art school. Her room was filled with her paintings. She wasn’t allowed to keep any of her work in any other part of the apartment because her father disapproved of her artistic pursuits. He was a doctor and wanted his daughter to become a doctor as well. He was obsessed with raising the best doctor the medical field had ever seen because his wife had died in childbirth and he couldn’t save her, despite his best efforts. He wanted his daughter to become a better doctor than him. But she didn’t care about medicine and just kept drawing.”

I pause for a moment before continuing, “One day he walked into her room and saw her standing in front of a blank canvas. She was getting ready to draw something. He lost his temper. He started beating her. He punched her in the nose and her blood splattered onto the blank canvas. Then he said, “That looks better than anything you’ve ever drawn.” Then he kept beating her until her face was unrecognizable. Her body looked like butchered meat by the time he was finished.”

“What happened to him after?” Irene asks.

“He called the police and confessed to murder. He waived his right to have a lawyer. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to death.”

“Poor girl. But I’ve heard worse.” Irene says.

“Yeah but what makes this disturbing is that the murder took place in this very building. Maybe the apartment she lived in was on the same floor as us. Maybe her bedroom where she was murdered was right here where we sit and work every day.”

“Okay, that is a creepy thought.”

“Exactly.”

Irene and I continue working.

I have so many emails to read. That’s the worst part about going on vacation, you have to come back to hundreds of unread emails and some of them are as long as the essays I wrote in school. I hate reading too much on a computer screen. It bothers my eyes. I decide to print out one of the longer emails.

But there’s no paper in the printer. Fortunately I always keep printer paper at the bottom of my drawer. I open my drawer only to be greeted by an assortment of stationery. There are notes, staplers, scissors, tape, files, binders, clips, pens and pencils. As I go through the mess in my drawer, I finally find the printer paper, which is still unopened and neatly packaged. I open the package and take out a blank sheet of paper.

Then I see something out of place.

There’s blood on the paper.

A Dark Night

“Can you please turn off the TV?” Christian yawns.

“I just want to see if Batman’s finally caught him…” Temina grips the remote tightly while watching the midnight news.

“He’s lucky he doesn’t know you personally. You’d nag him to death.”

“Shut up. This is important.”

“No sweetheart, it’s really not.” Christian says sardonically. “Batman has bigger fish to fry. Your boss was an asshole, but at the end of the day he’s not even in the Top 100 of Batman’s list of criminals to catch.”

Temina’s former boss, Matthew da Costa, promised her a promotion, a raise, a new office with a nice view, but in the end he fired her, didn’t give her any severance package of any sort, and gave her job to some new intern he was banging. A few months later he was kicked out the company because he was guilty of embezzlement. Before he could be arrested he disappeared. She tried to get her old job back but new management didn’t want her so she’s still job hunting.

“I hope Matthew burns in hell.” She says angrily.

“Maybe he’ll change his ways if he takes a dip in Lake Pious.” Christian laughs.

Lake Pious is just outside the city. Many centuries ago a con artist took a bath in the lake and claimed to have had a vision from God while washing himself. God told the con artist to inform the whole town that if they took a bath in the lake on a certain date, all their sins would be “washed away” and they could start fresh.

The con artist proceeded to convince everyone to follow God’s order. So when the big day came the whole town went to Lake Pious to bathe. They all had a grand time, celebrating new beginnings and letting go of the past.

What everyone didn’t know was that the con artist had hired a gang to break into everyone’s homes. So while everyone’s sins were being relieved in Lake Pious, so were their most valuable belongings. The con artist left town that night and was never seen again.

Temina turns off the TV and the lights and buries herself under her blanket.

Christian breathes a sigh of relief. Finally, the TV is off and he can rest. He had a long day. He’s an elementary school teacher and this year’s students are appallingly dumb. Teaching something as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 is astonishingly draining because it takes so long to explain. He falls asleep immediately.

Temina can’t sleep. Her boyfriend Christian is right, Batman does have better things to do. But her ex-boss really is a bad guy, not that that’s a rare kind of character in a place like this. The city’s sprawling with lowlife degenerates like Matthew da Costa. She just wishes there was something she could do to make him pay.

This is turning out to be one of those nights where Temina can’t sleep. She quietly leaves the bedroom and goes to the living room downstairs. Her laptop is lying on the sofa. She opens it and begins typing an email to her mom and dad. They died many years ago and she still blames herself for it. In her emails she writes about what’s happening in her life and what she hopes will happen in the future.

When she got her first job, she decided to use her first salary to buy a vacation package for her parents. They were excited that they’d finally see Europe. They had never left the city before, had never been inside a plane, so she thought this would be a thrilling experience.

She was the first graduate in the family, the first to get a high paying job, and she wanted to use her newfound resources to give her parents a more comfortable life. They weren’t poor but had never enjoyed the finer aspects of life. But the plane crashed on the way to Europe. They never even got a chance to see it. If they were destined to die, couldn’t the plane have crashed on the way back home after they had seen Europe?

Temina finishes writing the email and sends it.

Her thoughts return to Matthew da Costa. Where could he be hiding? She’d love nothing more than to point the police in his direction.

Then she remembers Matthew mentioning how his cousin owns a bar near her old office. What if he’s hiding there? She needs to find out. Christian would disapprove of her sneaking out in the middle of the night in his car, but if her instincts are correct, it’ll be worth it. She leaves the house and gets into Christian’s car and starts driving. His car is more comfortable. She reaches half an hour later and parks about a block away from the bar. It’s still open. The music’s good and everyone seems to be having a good time. There’s no sign of Matthew. It’s not like she can just ask the bartender where he is. This was a dumb idea.

“What are you doing here?” A voice asks.

Temina freezes. It’s Christian’s voice.

She turns around, “I could ask you the same thing.”

“Sneaking off in the middle of the night? Seriously?” He’s livid.

“You didn’t need to follow me.”

“We’re leaving right now.” Christian says and grabs her arm.

He leads her out of the bar and says, “I’m driving my own car back. You can take yours.”

“No.” Temina says.

“What did you say?” Christian asks.

“I said no.”

He slaps her hard. She stumbles back and falls. He hasn’t hit her in a very long time.

“You promised you’d never do that again.” Temina cries.

He bends down and holds her chin roughly. “And you promised you’d listen to me but you’ve broken that promise over and over again.”

Then he takes out a knife, “If you step out of line again¬–”

Suddenly something small and sharp flies through the air and hits him on the wrist. He drops the knife and yells in agony.

Temina’s heart skips a beat. Could it be him?

And from seemingly nowhere, Batman appears.

“Step away from her.” Batman orders.

“Ba-ba-batman.” Christian whimpers and backs away. “It’s not what it looks like. Tell him Temina, tell him it’s not what it looks like.”

Temina opens her mouth to tell Batman what Christian said… but she can’t. Not this time. She can’t live like this anymore.

“I’m afraid of him.” Temina tells Batman.

“Bitch!” Christian screams and lunges at her.

But before Christian can reach Temina, Batman throws another small gadget that opens up. A rope comes out of the gadget and binds Christian tightly. He lands on the ground hard and tries to break free but it’s no use.

“The police are coming.” Batman says. “He won’t hurt you again.”

Sirens are heard in the background.

Batman turns around to leave but Temina touches his shoulder.

“There is… one more thing.” Temina says.

Temina tells Batman everything about Matthew da Costa.

“I’ll look into it.” Batman says and then proceeds to use his grappling hook gun to disappear.

The police arrive. And this time, Temina will press charges.

Nightmare

“It’s okay! It’s not real!” Katami holds her boyfriend Renzo tight, trying to calm him down as he’s yelling and kicking.

The problem is that Renzo is having a nightmare.

Renzo has been having the same nightmare almost every night this month. In the nightmare he’s on a crowded train with his brother, standing near the door. The train stops at a station and the door opens, people are getting in and out, but somebody yanks Renzo out. His brother tries to pull him back in but the train starts moving and Renzo’s stuck at the wrong station. Then someone else grabs Renzo and starts dragging him away. Renzo’s struggling to get free but he can’t. He’s worried where he’s being taken but before he finds out he always wakes up.

Renzo wakes up shivering, “I’m sorry…”

“Why are you apologizing?” Katami puts a hand on his cheek. “Are you okay?”

She hands him a glass of water from the bedside table.

He sips slowly, “I don’t understand why I’m having these dreams now.”

Renzo’s older brother, Jaoshi, died 20 years ago. They were just kids at the time, throwing a Frisbee to each other. Renzo threw the Frisbee high and far, it landed on a neighbor’s property. Jaoshi jumped over the fence to retrieve the Frisbee but what he didn’t know was that the neighbor, a retired old man, had recently gotten a guard dog since they lived in a fairly dangerous area. Vicious creature, trained to deal with intruders in the most deadly manner. Jaoshi was savagely ripped apart. The neighbor felt so guilty that his dog murdered an innocent child that he sent the dog away. Tragically, the old man’s house was broken into a year after the incident and the robbers ended up killing him.

“Have you thought about seeing a therapist?” Katami asks.

“No. Do you think I should?”

“I think you should talk to someone about it.”

Renzo sighs, “I’d rather talk to you about it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I’m ready.”

Renzo describes the nightmare to Katami.

“That does sound scary.” Katami says.

“My brother’s name was Jaoshi. 5 years older than me.”

“Was?”

“He died.” Renzo explains how Jaoshi died when they were playing Frisbee.

“That’s so awful…” Katami lowers her head.

“Jaoshi and I didn’t get along. We were always fighting. Our parents didn’t get along either. I was attached to my mom and he was tight with my dad. I didn’t get along with dad and he didn’t get along with mom. We were a house divided. But one day Jaoshi and I decided to put our differences aside and just try and have fun together. I remember us laughing and having fun. It felt like we were brothers for the first time ever. But then I threw the Frisbee where I shouldn’t have… Anyway, after Jaoshi died, our parents divorced.”

“I hope you know it wasn’t your fault.”

“Yeah, I know that. I just wish he had gotten the life he deserved.”

“Me too.” She snuggles closer to him.

“Tell me about your sister. I know I’ve met her and she may be outgoing, but she never really talks about herself.”

Katami smiles, “She’s always been that way. To me personally, she’s always been like a third parent but way more fun. She taught me how to ride a bike. She jogged beside me until I felt safe enough to ride on my own. She taught me how to negotiate with shopkeepers, telling me not to be afraid to walk away if a deal wasn’t fair. And usually when I did start walking away, the shopkeeper would cave in. She taught me to never try to change someone I fell in love with. And most recently, she taught me how to write a resignation letter.”

“Resignation letter?”

“When I left my first job a little while ago, I just didn’t know how to say goodbye. It’s kind of like breaking up right? But my sis helped me write something professional and polite. In fact she helped me break up with my first boyfriend in high school. She went to his house in the dead of night and told him that if he didn’t stop stalking me, she’d tell the police. Then she kicked him in the balls.”

Renzo laughs, “She’s certainly awesome.”

“That she is.”

“We should go back to sleep.”

Renzo and Katami fall asleep in each other’s arms.

Renzo begins his slumber on a peaceful note, but soon enough he gets sucked into the same nightmare.

But this time, his brother Jaoshi holds his arm firmly, “Nobody’s taking you off the train.”

Renzo knows he’s dreaming, but everything feels so real. But the strange part is that while he’s a grown man in this dream, Jaoshi is still a teenager. Jaoshi looks just like how Renzo last saw him.

“What’s going on?” Renzo inquires. “This is only a dream. Why does everything feel so real?”

“Because it is real. This isn’t a dream. We’re just in a different kind of reality.” Jaoshi smiles. “We’re in the Afterlife. On and in case you’re wondering, people don’t age here.”

“What?!”

“I’m serious. I know it’s hard to believe, but just try and accept it. I’ve brought you to the Afterlife through the dream world. Dreaming is a passage from Real Life to the Afterlife. And that’s where you are right now, the Afterlife. I tried to get you here earlier but it didn’t work out. Thankfully it worked this time because I need your help.”

“My help?” Renzo looks perplexed.

“Okay so… here’s the problem. As you know, people don’t age in the Afterlife. And I’ve started liking this girl who recently entered the Afterlife. Her name is Naomi. She may look older than me, but in reality we are the same age because we were born in the same year. The only difference is that I died earlier than Naomi so I don’t look like I’m her age. She doesn’t want to date me because she doesn’t believe that I’m her age. So I need you to vouch for me. Tell her you’re my little brother and that I am in fact her age.”

Renzo’s speechless for a few moments. The cause of his sleepless nights was all because Jaoshi was trying to get laid. This fact is slowly sinking in.

“Are… are you serious?” Renzo asks. “You couldn’t bother to contact me all these years until now because you want some girl?”

“Um… yeah.” Jaoshi replies. “It’s actually not allowed for people in Real Life to be here. Transporting a person from Real Life to the Afterlife is dangerous.”

“So basically you risked my life for some girl…” Renzo concludes.

“When you put it that way it does sound bad… but to be fair, it was risky for me too. The punishment for me would’ve been equally severe.”

Renzo sighs, “I’m not even surprised. This is pretty typical of you. But I’m glad to see you. There are so many things I wanted to say to you…”

“Yeah, yeah, we’ll have time for all that later.” Jaoshi says. “First things first, lets go talk to Naomi okay? We need to get off here. And to get back to Real Life, you’ll have to take the train back.”

Renzo and Jaoshi exit the train.

“How did Naomi die anyway?” Renzo asks.

“I don’t know. I’m just glad she did.” Jaoshi says. “It’s a personal question, I’ll ask her when I get to know her better.”

Jaoshi’s crush is waiting on a bench near the train station.

“Hey!” Jaoshi says. “Meet my brother Renzo. Renzo, this is Naomi!”

I shake Naomi’s hand. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Jaoshi’s told me a lot about you.” Naomi smiles.

“Yes, I’m sure… Well, I’m just here to confirm his side of the story. He is my older brother by 7 years. He may still look like he’s 16 but his real age is 34.”

“Jaoshi… I can’t believe you actually went through with this. Both of you could’ve gotten into serious trouble.” Naomi chides.

“What’s done is done… so now that you know I’m your age, how about a date this Saturday night?” Jaoshi asks hopefully.

Naomi shakes her head, “I’m sorry but I want a man who looks like a man, not a teenager.”

Jaoshi looks like someone ripped his heart out and threw it in a shredder. Renzo tries to hide a smile. Jaoshi spent a lot of effort to bring him here and for what? To get rejected in the most brutal way.

“Don’t worry bro.” Renzo tells Jaoshi. “There are plenty of fish in the sea. Keep your chin up.”

“I’m sure you’ll find someone right for you.” Naomi stands up. “I have to go to work now.”

“But…” Jaoshi mumbles.

“You have to work when you’re dead?” Renzo asks. “That sucks.”

“Of course.” Naomi says. “The Afterlife is a lot like Real Life with a few differences… you’ll find out one day. Oh and when you do make it here, give me a call.”

Naomi leaves.

“Well… that didn’t go as planned.” Renzo says.

“No shit!” Jaoshi replies. “I can’t believe she liked you! She actually told you to contact her after you die… This is bullshit!”

Renzo laughs, “Chill. If I make it to the Afterlife before my girlfriend, I’m going to wait for her.”

“What happened to that dog that killed me?” Jaoshi asks. “I hope he was put to sleep.”

“No idea. Our neighbor sent him away somewhere.”

Renzo and Jaoshi spend some more together and then Renzo takes the train back to Real Life.

When Renzo wakes up the next morning, he still can’t believe what happened. Or was it a dream?

Rick Carnegie

“Why can’t you just settle down with a nice girl?” My dear mother pleads.

“In a few years.” I yawn. I prefer nice girls to nice girl. The difference between plural and singular is the difference between freedom and imprisonment.

“You’re nearly 30!” She says frantically. “How much longer will you wait? A real man doesn’t please dozens of women a year, but one woman for the rest of his life. Only boys play around. Men commit. When are you going to be a man like your father?”

Hm. I suppose that’s why it’s called a playboy.

“Now mom.” I say gently. “I just got a new job. I’m going to get a promotion soon. I don’t earn enough to start a family yet.”

“Your father never earned more than a quarter of what you do and we got married when we were much younger than you!”

Yes, but did she take inflation into account? I doubt it. I know my late father is the role model my mother wants me to be. But the only role model I have is the dashing figure I see in the mirror everyday.

Modesty may not be one of my virtues but patience is. And dealing with my mother requires as much patience as an IT technician dealing with a computer-illiterate person. My friend works in IT and he once had to explain to his boss why it is not possible to combine two word documents by saving them both under the same name.

“Don’t worry.” I kiss her cheek. “One day you’ll have many grandchildren to play with. And they’ll love your cooking as much as I do.”

She smiles, “Will you take this tomato soup to grandma?”

“Yes.” I take the soup and head downstairs.

Grandma lives one floor below mom in the same building. I live on the other side of the city and visit them twice a month. She used to be a travel photographer but now she has major memory problems and some other mental issues as well. She’s forgotten most of the past but thankfully she remembers mom and I. She’s also started inventing new memories altogether. Grandpa died years ago but that hasn’t stopped her from moving on and making up an imaginary boyfriend. His name is Rick Carnegie and he and grandma love going horseback riding.

Rick is a travel photographer, just like grandma used to be, and he’s taken pictures of baby blue eye flowers in Japan. He’s taken pictures of king penguin chicks on beaches in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Rick’s even taken pictures of smoke rising from an active volcano – Mount Bromo in Indonesia.

At first my mom had trouble accepting grandma’s fiction but I convinced her to play along. So what if Rick’s career has been a mirror image of grandma’s? My family has always been close, cherishing each other’s company and laughing together for as long as I can remember. I won’t let anything take that away from us.

I ring the doorbell and grandma opens the door.

She’s in tears, “Rick died.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“Plane crash.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I really loved him.”

“And he loved you.” I hold her hand. “Whenever he took pictures of his adventures, his first thought was that he couldn’t wait to show it to you first.”

“He was going to take me to Switzerland.”

“I’ll take you to Switzerland.” I smile.

“Okay.”

I hug her and give her the tomato soup. I call mom to tell her what happened and she comes running downstairs. I chat with them for a little while longer before leaving. I have a date this evening.

Lovelina

Oscar and Lovelina are driving home from the movies. It’s cold inside the car. The heater isn’t working and the temperature outside is well below zero.

Lovelina’s gripping the steering wheel tighter than usual. It’s been a long day and it’s about to get longer.

“I need to tell you something.” Lovelina hits the accelerator and the car picks up speed.

“About the movie? It was terrific.” Oscar replies

“That it was.” She nods her head. “But it’s not about that. It’s about us.”

“Us?” He asks.

“I’m… this is probably not the best time to say this but – I started seeing someone else. Behind your back.”

He doesn’t reply immediately. Then he laughs nervously, “You’re tying to be funny right?”

“This isn’t a prank. I’m serious. I’m really sorry.”

“Stop the car.” He orders. “I don’t want to talk about this while driving.”

She pulls over on the side of the road. “We probably shouldn’t stay here for long. The area isn’t safe.”

“That’s your main concern? Not the fact that you absolutely betrayed me?”

“Oh come on.” She snaps. “We aren’t the same as before. Things have gotten stale. I wouldn’t be surprised if you were seeing someone too.”

“I’m not!” Oscar yells. “Just because things aren’t as intense anymore doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the same way about you.”

“I’m sorry. What I did was wrong. But it’s just not working out.”

“Get out.” Oscar says quietly.

“Excuse me?”

“Get out of the car.” He says again.

“This is my car, Oscar.”

“I don’t care!” He yells, reaches over to her door, opens it, and pushes her out. Then he shifts to the driver’s seat.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” She screams. “You can’t just leave me here!”

“Fuck you.” He drives away.

 

An hour later he reaches my flat and rings the doorbell.

As soon as I open it he says, “I did something drastic.”

“What happened?” I ask as we go into the living room.

Oscar tells me what happened.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I ask. “You left her in the most dangerous area in town!”

“She texted me a few minutes ago. She was mugged at gunpoint and her purse was stolen. And she almost froze to death while going home, she had left her jacket in the backseat and didn’t get a chance to grab it before I kicked her out. Shit, I feel really guilty.”

“You should feel guilty.”

Oscar shakes his head, “She broke me. I can’t believe she’s seeing someone else.”

“What she did was absolutely wrong. But what you did was still unacceptable, you know that right?”

“I do, I do…” He says. “I just thought she was the one. I thought I would marry her again because… it felt like we were married in a previous life.”

Then he removes a small journal from his pocket. “Read…” He starts flipping pages and stops somewhere in the middle. “This. I wrote it when Lovelina and I were doing long distance.”

I start reading:

I’m in love with someone I’ll meet in the future.

We live alone on opposite ends of the world but soon we’ll be reunited in the center.

I’ll write her a letter today. The best part about being in a long distance relationship is actually letters. Letters are personal because your handwriting makes you unique. And sharing that uniqueness with someone you love is very special. Her handwriting is so beautiful that I want to use it as a font on Microsoft Word.

Even when Lovelina and I used to live together, and whenever we had an argument, we didn’t speak to each other. We didn’t yell at each other. We simply wrote what we felt on paper and started reading. We kept writing to each other until the argument was resolved. She once told me that she never fully trusted her ex because his handwriting was sloppy.

I finish reading and all I have to say is, “Wow. I didn’t know you had a journal.”

Oscar grabs the journal from my hand and throws it in the fireplace.

“It’s over. Lovelina and I are over.” He declares.

“I’m sorry. I really wish it had worked out. You two were great together.”

He gets up, “I need to be alone right now.”

 

After he leaves I call Lovelina.

“Are you okay?” I ask.

“Yes.” Lovelina replies. “I should’ve picked a better time to tell him the truth.”

“You should’ve called me when he left you stranded there.”

“I was afraid you two would run into each other if he was driving away from me and you were driving towards me.”

“How did you get home?”

“I took a bus home. The asshole who stole my purse was kind enough to give me directions to the nearest bus stop along with bus fare.”

I run a hand through my hair, “I’m so sorry this happened.”

“Don’t be.” She replies softly. “I’m free now… Am I seeing you tonight?”

“Yes.”

Hostage

My girlfriend is being held hostage at a bank. It’s been 45 minutes since every media outlet in the country started covering it. I told Amanda to just pay her bills online but she said her laptop and phone were both too slow and it would be faster to just go to the bank and get it done. Her laptop belonged to her late mother’s so it’s quite old – Amanda uses it because it reminds her of her mom.

I’m right outside the bank, behind a police barricade. My sister told me to stay at home because it might be dangerous to be near the bank but I had no intention of watching the crisis unfold on TV. What’s made me nervous is that the bank robbers haven’t made any demands yet. I thought they would’ve asked for the moon by now but they’ve been silent.

And what really has me worried is that our country does not have a history of negotiating with criminals or terrorists. We’ve let hostages die in the past because according to our Prime Minister, “If the bad guys think they can do what they want just because they have a few hostages, they can think again.”

I approach a policeman to inquire about the hostage crisis.

“There are 50 hostages being held by three captors.” He says. “We’ve tried contacting the captors but they aren’t picking up the phone. They’ve also emptied all the vaults – if they walk away from this, and I doubt they will, they’ll have enough money to live like kings for a hundred lifetimes.”

“Sir, is there anything you can tell me that hasn’t been reported on the news?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Could you please just lay down your arms and let them walk away? These are 50 lives we’re talking about. We may have sacrificed two or three hostages in the past but this is a huge double-digit number, it’s unprecedented.”

“Do you know someone in there?” He asks.

“My girlfriend. I was planning to propose to her next month.”

“I’m sorry. If it were up to me I’d let the three robbers walk away as long as nobody got hurt. But I’m just one man. What can I do?”

I had planned to take Amanda on a cruise since she’s never seen the ocean before. Then we’d go scuba diving and I’d surprise her underwater with a sign with these words on it: ‘Will you make me the luckiest man by marrying me?’

As I’m fantasizing about Amanda being my wife, I hear several loud gunshots. Every police officer aims their weapon at the bank. Something big is thrown out of the door and lands on one of the police cars. That something is a human body. I rush over to get a look.

The police push me back but I had gotten close enough to see that it wasn’t Amanda. It was someone else. A journalist rushes over and climbs on top of the police car to capture the image. The police immediately drag him away but it’s too late, the image will now live online forever.

The image: a male corpse with a bullet hole in his forehead and a note in his mouth. Here’s what it says:

‘Police: leave the area for 30 minutes and no one else will be harmed. If you insist on negotiating, then we will only communicate via this method.’

The poor man. A part of me hopes he was a loner otherwise his loved ones must be going through the worst time of their lives right now. I really hope the police just do what these maniacs want. Nobody else needs to get hurt today.

And then my phone starts ringing. I pick it up and hear none other than Amanda’s voice.

“Is it really you? Are you okay? What’s happening?” I bombard her with questions.

“Please listen carefully.” She says. “My battery’s low and these guys might come back any second. You need to tell the media my name. Get in front of a camera and tell everyone who I am.”

“What? Amanda, why? What’s going on?”

“Pour your heart out to the media because it’ll raise public sympathy as it helps the public know the hostages personally. That will pressure the prime minister to give in to the captors’ demands so that no one else gets hurt. Now please, hurry!”

She hangs up. I make my way to the nearest the journalist and tell him that I personally know one of the hostages. He shoves a mic in my face and I tell the world all about Amanda, how we’ve been together for 10 years. We met in high school and went to the same college. We attended college in another country and experienced a whole new culture. And the best part is that we have so much in common – our favourite thing to do is stay at home and read. Most nights we’ll just read books in the same bed till we fall asleep.

After I’m done I just start praying. I’ve never believed in God but maybe he does exist. I don’t know. If he does, I hope he listens and saves Amanda.
About half an hour later the police go into their cars and start driving away. An officer tells me that I need to clear the area because the Prime Minister has decided to give the bank robbers what they want – the police are leaving the area just as the robbers demanded. One of the officers gives me a ride in his car.

He drops me off at a café nearby. We aren’t too far from the area the bank is in. An hour passes and then we all get the news from the TV in the café: The robbers have left the bank. All other hostages are inside the bank and are unharmed. Thank God. Amanda is safe.

I hail a cab and go to the bank. I see Amanda near a paramedic. I rush over to her and take her into my arms. She starts crying. We go to the hospital to get some tests done. A few hours later we go home. We’re in bed, safely under a blanket.

“I can’t believe you’re safe.” I tell her. “I expected to see a SWAT team raid the bank and blast those robbers away. I thought all the hostages were expendable. The robbers got away with millions of dollars. The Prime Minister had a change of heart, it’s a miracle.”

“I need to tell you something. The hostages, including me, are safe because… because of me.”

“I know! Your public sympathy idea worked!”

“No… that’s not it.”

“Then what?”

“When you told the media who I was, everyone knew I was a hostage, including the Prime Minister.”

“So?” I ask.

“I had an affair with the Prime Minister last year.”

The Punisher

The global surge in vigilantes has some worried and some relieved. They’re quite the polarizing group. Some people think they should be locked up for taking the law into their own hands while others believe they should get medals for making the world a safer place. Some feel that vigilantes with superpowers are a threat to the human race while others believe they are simply the next step in human evolution.

Personally, I wholeheartedly approve of them. I’m currently reading an article headlined, ‘Vigilante Epidemic’. The author believes that certain super powered beings cause problems which are solved by other super powered beings, so the world would be a better place if there were no super powered beings at all. I think that everyone who’s against vigilantes would change their tune if a vigilante saved their life or their loved ones’ lives. Or maybe not. You never know. Some people are shockingly devoid of gratitude.

I’m at work right now, yawning every five minutes. I couldn’t sleep properly last night. I had a nightmare – Someone had hypnotized me into robbing a bank and some random vigilante caught me. The police arrested me and threw me in prison. And prison was very depressing, because I wasn’t allowed to read any books. I don’t care about crowded prison cells, the bad food or the fact that the toilet is right next to your bed. But I do care when I’m separated from my books. Just like how a sword is an extension of a samurai’s arm, my books are an extension of my mind.

My friend Angela soon reaches office. She’s late, which is unusual.

I’m taken aback when I see tears rolling down her cheeks.

“What happened?” I ask.

“Dr. Strange was murdered last night. I found this near his body.” She hands me a piece of paper. It’s a letter.

Dr. Strange was Angela’s dog’s name.

I read the letter:

Dear Angela,

You’ll never hug me again. You’ll never play with me again. You’ll never see me again because I have decided to take my own life.

Goodbye,
Dr. Strange

Obviously a dog couldn’t have written a suicide letter and killed himself.

“I’m so sorry Angela.” I give the letter back to her.

“Why would someone do this?” She asks. “I wasn’t going to come to work today but I wanted to try and take my mind off what happened. I have too many memories of Dr. Strange at home, I’ll need to move. I’m staying with my sister right now. When I got home last night I saw him in bed with his throat cut open.”

“Whoever did this is one sick bastard.”

“Whoever this Pet Killer is, he has to be stopped.”

There’s a pet serial killer rampaging through the city. Dr. Strange was his third victim. He not only murders animals, but he also ransacks his victim’s homes.

“Is anything missing from your home?” I ask her.

“I haven’t checked yet. It doesn’t matter.” She says. “He just killed Dr. Strange and left. There’s absolutely no evidence of a break in, no evidence that someone was even there, the police don’t know where to start.”

“I’m sure the police will find him soon enough.”

“No they won’t.” She says firmly. “But you know someone who can.”

There’s a new vigilante in town. He calls himself ‘The Punisher’. He’s modeled himself after Frank Castle, and he’s a school friend of mine. I honestly thought he’d amount to nothing – he skipped class every other day – but here he is, actually making a difference.

Of course there are many who think he’s an out-of-control psycho murderer but those same people are protected from criminals because The Punisher kills criminals before they can hurt people. The Punisher truly understands that prevention is better than a cure.

I whisper, “I’m sure the Punisher is hot on his trail.”

“I need a favor. When the Punisher finds him, I don’t want the Punisher to kill him. I want to kill him.” Angela says.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. Let the Punisher take care of it.”

“Please. I only ask for things when I really need them. I need to look this Pet Killer in the eye and kill him myself. I just need the Punisher to capture him for me.”

I sigh, “I can’t promise anything.”

“Just try.” She pleads.

Obviously the Punisher is not going to entertain Angela’s request. And nor will I waste his time by asking him to let Angela do his job for him. Angela has enough issues to deal with and having blood on her hands won’t help.

Getting her to open up to me was a herculean task. I had to keep asking her over and over again to talk to me and finally when the floodgates opened, she told me everything in a sad, quiet voice. She was bullied as a child. She didn’t tell her parents or her teachers because she didn’t think it would make a difference. She’s never been in a relationship before because she always sabotages herself. She’ll usually tell a guy if she likes him but if the feeling is mutual, she’ll push him away.

She’s seen a few therapists but she says it doesn’t help because she knows what her problems are because she’s clear about her issues. She says therapy is for people who are confused. According to her, what she needs to do now is apply what her therapists have told her to do. Doing is the hard part.

Or maybe she thinks she has clarity about her issues but does not, and maybe she needs to find the right therapist to help her gain clarity and get her to take action on her issues. I don’t know. I just do my best to be a good friend to her – and to continue doing that I’ll need to show her that getting her hands bloody isn’t the answer.

“Look at this.” Angela grabs my shoulder.

I look at Angela’s computer screen. She’s reading some breaking news.

The headline: ‘Pet Killer Found Dead’

The article reveals the Pet Killer’s identity, a man by the name of Darren Jones. He was found hanging from a ceiling fan in his apartment. A suicide note was found in his pocket:

Dear World,

I regret all the heinous acts I committed. I wish I could take them back but I cannot. I do not deserve to be forgiven. I am beyond redemption. I am sorry.

Goodbye,
Darren Jones

“Well, that takes care of that.” I say.

“It won’t bring back Dr. Strange. I’m glad he’s dead but… I still feel empty.”

“The important thing is that there won’t be any more victims.” I reply. “Pet owners will be able to breathe easy.”

“Maybe I’d feel better if I had killed Darren Jones myself.”

I doubt that but I don’t say anything. I also don’t think for a minute that Darren Jones willingly took his own life. I wonder if Darren saw the suicide note before he was disposed of.

I’m not sure if The Punisher took care of him, but whoever did has my gratitude.

Life Simplified

I shut all my books. I can’t take it anymore. I need a break. It’s midnight and I’m in the school library again, trying to finish an essay by tomorrow morning. I promised myself I wouldn’t leave things till the last minute but that promise, like most of my promises, was not meant to be.

I also promised myself I’d work up the courage to talk to Olivia this year but so far I’ve been a big chicken. The thing is I have too much homework. Senior year of high school is a harder than I imagined, especially when you wind up doing most group projects by yourself. My back hurts from carrying all my good-for-nothing classmates.

If it were up to me to pick my group members, I’d have picked my friends but our teacher decided to form all groups this year because she said that in the real world you aren’t always lucky to work with your friends. I was tempted to retort that you’re also not always lucky to have a good teacher but I managed to summon enough willpower to keep my mouth shut.

I’m afraid I’ll fail one or more of my classes but realistically there’s a very slim chance of that happening because I’m usually the only one in the school library every night. I’m lucky it’s even open 24/7, most schools don’t provide that privilege. I wish Olivia would come to the library. The only time she did come was with her friends about three months ago and they made so much noise I couldn’t even hear the video I was watching on my laptop even though I had headphones on.

I open my books. My essay is on Hamlet and here’s a quote from it that’s been on my mind a lot lately: “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Let’s take math class for example. Math isn’t good or bad. My best friend loves numbers. I, on the other hand, would rather cut off my hand than study math again after I finish high school.

I’m about to resume writing my essay when Olivia walks into the library. All by herself. She sees me and smiles. She’s coming towards me. Shit. I really hope I’m imagining things. I know I just wished she would come to the library but I take it back. There is no way I’ll be able to focus on my essay if Olivia sits beside me. She proceeds to sit beside me.

“Hi!” She says cheerfully. “You’re usually here aren’t you?”

“Um, yeah. All this work isn’t going to finish itself.” I laugh nervously.

“Sadly it won’t. I’m here at this hour because I was looking for – oh there it is!” She nods her head towards my copy of ‘Hamlet Simplified’.

“It’s useful.” I reply slowly.

I don’t understand a word of Shakespeare. Hamlet Simplified, a translation, is my savior. It also happens to be the only copy available. If the English teacher knew about its existence he would do everything in his power to remove the book from the school library.

What’s frustrating is that the school has only been removing books in the past few years rather than adding any new ones. My English teacher insisted that all of Mario Puzo’s books be removed because in his scholarly opinion, they weren’t very good. What a moron. His taste in books is nearly as bad as his taste in clothes. He wears such bright tacky clothing that I always feel like wearing sunglasses in his presence.

“I’ve heard there’s only one copy.” She says. “Would you mind if we share it? My essay is also on Hamlet and we can work on it together.”

Actually, I mind! I’m uncomfortable being in such close proximity to a girl I’m interested in. I know I shouldn’t be so petrified and I should be thankful for this golden opportunity to spend time with Olivia, but the sad reality is that I am the biggest coward I know.

“Yeah… sure.”

“Don’t worry, I won’t distract you.” She smiles. “I’ll try and be quiet like you.”

For the next hour she keeps her word but I make very little progress on my essay. Everything about her is distracting. The smell of her hair, her perfume, the way she purses her lips when she’s trying to understand a particular passage of Hamlet.

“I’m exhausted.” She says finally. “Do you want to take a break? Maybe go for a walk outside?”

“I really have to finish this. I only started a few hours ago.”

“No problem! Let’s take a break later.”

We resume working in silence. Two hours pass by. This time I manage to write another page of my essay. I should be done in about half an hour.

Suddenly she says, “My dog is sick.”

“Oh… I’m sorry to hear that.”

“But the vet says he’s going to be okay. But what’s bothering me is how insensitive some of my friends are. They ask questions like, “How long do you think he’s going to live?” I mean how would they like it if I asked them, “How long do you think your grandfather is going to live for? How long do you think your little sister is going to live for?” Some people just don’t understand that my dog is a part of my family.”

I nod, “I know what you mean. My dad used to have a dog when he was in school. He has an entire photo album of pictures of just him and his dog doing all sorts of things. If your friends looked at that album, maybe they’d understand just how deep a bond can be between a human being and an animal.”

She smiles, “I’d love to see that album.”

“Sure.”

“Well, I’m done my essay.”

“I’m almost done.” I reply.

“I take my dog to a park on the weekends. You should come along.”

“That would be nice.” I nod my head.

“And you should call me some time.” She writes her number on some scrap paper. “I have to go now. See you tomorrow!”

She leaves the library.

I have no idea what just happened but I’m glad it did.