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2 Many Worlds / Chat over coffee

3 July 2004

The weekend has finally come! It was a respite for those who have suffered terribly under the oppression of the school week. Patrick opened his eyes with zest, despite the early hour. He had nothing special planned for the day, just hanging out with his friends, but it was still something he looked forward to. He enjoyed the company of his friends because with them he could loosen the self-restraints that had been imposed upon him by his familial circumstances—he didn’t need to be a perfect child while hanging out with them.

He took a bath and dressed hurriedly, putting on a T-shirt and jeans like he always did when he wasn’t forced to wear anything else, like a school uniform or formal clothes for such occasions. Out the door he went and he walked the little distance between his boarding house and Christianne’s. It was something that her parents rented from its owners, who were now living abroad. It was a semi-detached house more than half the size of Patrick’s boarding house, with hardly any space between it and the three walls surrounding it. Without bothering to ring the doorbell by the gate, Patrick let himself in and then knocked on the door.

‘Hey, Christianne!’ he shouted as he knocked. ‘You up yet?’

After about a minute of this, he heard the slam of a door inside, a set of loud footsteps, and finally the lifting of various locks and latches on the door in front of him. After the door had been opened, he found himself facing a very disgruntled Christianne, who still in her pyjamas.

‘It’s barely 9 am, Pat,’ hissed Christianne as she pulled his arm to let him in.

‘So it is,’ Patrick said with a wide grin.

‘I’ve had a very tiring week, Pat. I wanted to sleep in.’

‘No, no, that won’t do!’ said Patrick as he walked past the living room and into the kitchen. ‘I’m sure breakfast will wake you up.’

The kitchen was tidy, if a little dusty—Christianne did not know how to cook, and she often ate out or sometimes with Patrick, who knew his way around the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator door and inspected its contents.

‘Hm, sandwich meat, eggs… Too bad there’s no tomatoes or onions, but I guess that’s good enough for an omelette.’

Christianne was back in the living room, collapsed on the sofa. A few minutes later her head perked up, and she rose from her slumber, sauntering into the kitchen.

‘Pat, that smells good!’ she said as she peered over his shoulder at the pan.

‘Ah, you’ve ran out of cooking oil, so I used butter instead.’

‘Well, you’re the only one who uses this kitchen,’ said Christianne in a playful tone, ‘so I won’t remember to buy it.’

They spent the next few minutes without a word, with Patrick humming some pop song as he made sure the omelette was thoroughly cooked.

‘Done,’ said Patrick, taking the pan off the stove and sliding its contents into a plate. ‘I think I saw some bread in here somewhere; I’ll go get it.’

Christianne had already taken a fork, and she took a piece while Patrick fussed around the dining table.

‘Oh, Patrick Cruz!’ she exclaimed, somewhat muffled by the food in her mouth. ‘I could just marry you!’

He laughed as he steered Christianne, plate in hand, to the dining table. He smiled as he watched her devour everything that had been set before her.

When one saw Christianne for the first time one would assume that she was a demure and quiet girl, but in reality she was outspoken and tactless, a fact that did not endear her to a lot of people. But to those who knew her best she was a friend who could be counted on to tell the truth without embellishment, and to accept the worst in her friends and yet continue to care for them.

She had straight black hair that barely passed her shoulder. Her face, which bore traces of a difficult battle with acne, seemed to be covered almost entirely by her rectangular glasses, which contrasted well with her round face. She knew that no one found her attractive, as evidenced by the fact that no one had ever asked her for a date, but her she didn’t care much about it; she believed that if she managed to have such good friends despite her abrasive nature, then someone would eventually manage to overcome the barrier of mere looks.

‘Once you’re properly dressed,’ said Patrick, ‘how about we drop by Bets’s place?’

‘She’s injured, Pat,’ said Christianne. ‘I doubt even your dazzling cooking skills could seduce her out of the house, or her bad mood.’

‘Oh, Alvin will bring his car,’ said Patrick. ‘She won’t have to walk around too much.’

‘And Al already knows this?’ said Christianne, her eyebrow raised.

‘Ah…’

‘Thought so,’ she said as she resumed eating.

‘Last time I tried to talk to him before 9:30, he said some pretty bad words, and then he hung up.’

Christianne giggled. ‘So you can’t seduce a demon.’

‘Right. Anyway, I’ll call him on the way to Bets’s.’

‘What are we doing, anyway?’

‘Oh, just hang out at the mall, you know.’

‘Being a talentless bum has its perks,’ said Christianne. ‘Look, I’m helping prepare the otaku club’s presentation for club appreciation day, Betty’s recovering from her volleyball injury, and Al has that exhibit abroad coming up soon. And you decided this is the best time to loaf around doing nothing in some crowded place, when we could be doing the same in the comfort of our own homes?’

‘Hey, it’s the weekend. I wanted to spend it with you guys.’

Christianne groaned. ‘Being your friend must be punishment for a past life.’

* * * * *

There was a knock on the door to Bets’s bedroom.

‘Go away!’ she shouted sleepily.

‘Bettina, your friends are looking for you.’

‘We have dogs, ma. Use them. Chase them away.’

‘Look, Bets, I know you’re depressed ‘cause you’ve injured your ankle, but look at the bright side. You saved that final ball, and your team won.’

‘It was just an exhibition match, ma. The docs said it may take three months for this to heal. The inter-university games might have started by then.’

‘Oh, you’ll be just fine by then, dear. And your friends are here to cheer you up.’

‘Unless they brought some magic healing potion, I doubt it,’ she mumbled, but nevertheless she got up and started to get dressed. Afterwards she met Christianne and Patrick in the living room.

‘You can still spike someone’s head to the ground even with that leg, right?’ said Christianne. ‘I’ll hold Pat still.’

‘What do you guys want?’ said Bets grumpily.

‘Me, I want to be back in bed,’ said Christianne. ‘I don’t know what the hell he wants.’

‘Guys, it’s the weekend. We need to hang out together. It’s a tradition.’

‘Must be nice being talentless,’ said Bets.

‘Already said that, sister,’ chimed in Christianne.

‘Besides, you won’t have to worry about your ankle,’ said Patrick. ‘I called Alvin earlier and asked him to bring his car.’

‘And he agreed?’ said Bets, her voice dripping with doubt.

‘Well…’ Patrick began. ‘He said he’ll use my blood for his next exhibit, then he hung up. But, hey, that means he’s coming here, right?’

‘Is the “spiking his head” offer still good?’ said Bets. Christianne laughed in response.

Bets’s mother had breakfast prepared, and she urged Christianne and Patrick to join Bets, to which the two assented, despite already having eaten. They were just about finished when they heard the honk of a car horn outside.

‘That’s Al,’ said Christianne, and the three got to their feet.

After saying their goodbyes to Bets’s mother, they went outside and towards a parked dark blue sedan. Christianne opened the front passenger door and said to Alvin, who was seated in the driver’s seat: ‘You can have Pat’s blood, but Bets gets to spike his head to the ground first.’

‘I’m fine with that,’ said Alvin, who, after seeing that everyone was seated inside, started driving. ‘I’ll use it for a sketch entitled, “I need my bloody sleep.”‘

‘I’d buy that,’ said Bets in the rear.

‘Guys,’ said Patrick. ‘I know you’ve had a busy week, but it’s the weekend. You’ve had busy weeks before, but that didn’t stop us from hanging out.’

‘I wish I’d get to swap places with you,’ said Alvin. ‘It must be relaxing.’

‘You think so, too?’ Christianne and Bets said in unison, and the three shared a laugh. Despite their words, they understood their friend’s circumstances, and were willing to indulge him this one fancy, however much they were inconvenienced by it.

‘So, where to, Pat?’ Alvin said.

‘Ultramall-Central’s our midpoint, right?’

‘God, I need coffee,’ moaned Christianne, her head slumped down. She raised her head for a moment and added, ‘Besides, I get to torture Pat with it, too.’

‘Sounds good,’ said Alvin. They spent the rest of the drive in silence.

There was a coffee shop in one of the mall’s entrances. Alvin parked near it, and, as soon as the vehicle had stopped, Christianne rushed out towards it. Alvin walked leisurely after her, and Patrick helped Bets to her feet.

‘Ooh, isn’t that Theresa from your Algebra class?’ said Bets as they approached the café.

Indeed it was. She was seated near a window, alone in a table for two. Her face was expressionless as she read a newspaper, and a tall paper cup of coffee was before her.

‘Hey, you’re right,’ said Patrick. ‘Wait, you know her?’

‘Well, Alvin told me enough about her, and I saw her once in her Physics class with Christianne.’

‘I see,’ said Patrick. He kept an eye on Theresa, or as much as he could spare while he helped Bets walk to the coffee shop’s queue.

When they reached Christianne and Alvin’s table, Christianne was already halfway through a tall cup of latte, while Alvin was peeling off the icing of his carrot cake with his fork and then licked it off. He looked up when they have arrived, and he said to Patrick, ‘Look, Theresa’s here,’ nodding in her direction. Christianne started, and her head went around in search of her. When she had caught sight of her she threw her an angry look before standing up to get another cup of coffee. Bets and Alvin said nothing while this happened, and Patrick was unaware of what Christianne did, since his glance was now fixed on Theresa, who was still engrossed with her newspaper and failed to notice the world around her.

‘Why don’t you go and talk to her?’ said Bets after a minute, elbowing Patrick in the side.

‘Huh?’ said Patrick with a jolt. ‘Me? No.’

‘The way you’re staring at her—’ Bets began, but her next words were drowned out when Patrick’s cell phone started beeping. He took it out and tried to turn it off, but it still kept on beeping until—

Patrick’s eyes opened, and he found himself staring at the muted glow of the morning sun through his room’s jalousie windows. Everything had been a dream. He should have known by now to distinguish between his dreams and reality, but these dreams were so lifelike that he could not tell the difference while he was within them. He found himself wondering, not for the first time, where he got them from, but having no clue at all as to their origin, they remained a mystery to him.

‘Right, weekend,’ he reminded himself, but the enthusiasm was gone, as if he had already spent it all in the dream. His routine after getting up was the same as that in the dream. The same clothes, the same path to Christianne’s house, but when he got there, he found that his laughter was hollow, his smiles forced, and that they soon disappeared, giving way to a glum expression. The same sequence of events brought them to Bets’s house, and then the same drive to the mall, but there was a marked lack of gaiety in Patrick’s demeanour, which Alvin noticed as soon as he entered his car.

‘You all right, Pat?’ he asked.

‘Fine,’ Patrick said, wearing a smile as he nodded, but when he was behind Alvin’s seat, hidden from his view, his face resumed its melancholy expression.

Christianne expressed the same desire for coffee as she had in the dream, so they headed for the familiar coffee shop. Theresa was also there, seated in the same spot. Patrick decided that he wanted a change, so he mustered his courage and headed for her table when Bets urged him to.

‘Good luck, Pat!’ Bets shouted behind him, and he winced as Theresa looked up from her newspaper and fixed her cool gaze at his approaching figure.

Waving at her, he smiled and said, ‘Hi!’ with a mixture of awkwardness and jauntiness. She continued to stare at him quietly, and Patrick’s smile faded as he realised that anger smouldered from her eyes. It was not directed at her (or so he hoped); it seemed more of a general animosity for everyone and everything. He noticed that her right cheek was reddened, and that her left wrist bore traces of bruising.

Theresa might have noticed his observations, because she stood up hastily and said, ‘Excuse me, I need to go somewhere,’ in a chilly voice.

Patrick stared blankly at her until she walked out of sight, after which he walked back to his friends’s table with a frown, clearly enervated by that encounter. Next time, he thought, I should be more courageous the first time around. That way, I’ll experience these embarrassing situations only in my dreams.

10 August 2004

6:50 am. OJ Tan was seated all alone in a table for two in an outlet of Jo’s Coffee Shop near the Vergara Museum for Visual Arts in Universidad Central. He had been there for five minutes already, and he had already consumed two cups of coffee—halfway through his third—and a croissant. The pastry was not much to his liking, preferring the more pedestrian pan de sal and monay, but it was something to fill his stomach with as he had left home without any breakfast.

Five minutes and another cup later, a woman in a light brown blazer and skirt waved at him. He raised a hand to acknowledge her, and she took a seat at the table with him.

‘I tried to come five minutes before seven, but I knew you’d be here earlier still,’ she said with a smile. ‘Have you been waiting long?’

‘No,’ he said almost breathlessly as he studied her intently.

Leah Castro was tall and slim, her long hair tied in a ponytail. She had a tanned complexion that did not seem to match her slightly Hispanic features, but she explained it away by saying that whitening her skin was a waste when she went out of the way to get it darkened again with her hobbies bicycling and hiking. She brought a lot of energy to every endeavour she had her hand in, which made it surprising that she lasted so long in the placid records section of the university.

‘How are you?’ OJ asked.

‘I’m fine,’ she said, beaming. She did that a lot. ‘Happy, in fact. I have a boyfriend now, a professor from Athanasius.’

‘I’m glad to hear that,’ he said with a smile of his own. He had been tense when he first saw her, but her smile made him relax. She didn’t hate him, it seemed.

‘I cried, you know,’ she said. ‘After you said we should stop seeing each other. I knew you wouldn’t always be with me, since you have a family, but at least I had a part of you. Now I realised it so much better to have someone who’s all yours.’

OJ’s tenseness returned at that statement, and he found himself fumbling at his coffee cup, unable to raise his eyes to meet Leah’s.

‘But enough of the past. How are you?’

The lack of resentment in Leah’s voice gave OJ the strength to look up, and he replied, ‘I’m in charge of a big case. You may already know which one.’

‘Oh,’ said Leah. A waiter dropped by to take her order. As soon as he had left, she asked, ‘How many?’

‘Three died last night, so that’s sixteen dead. Seven remain critical. Over fifty wounded.’

‘And how many from here?’

‘I have a list here. I’ll give it to you later.’ He took out his phone and opened an image file. ‘Now, I want your help with this one,’ he said as he showed her the photo. ‘She looks like a student here, but we found nothing to identify her with.’

‘That’s odd,’ Leah said as she took the phone. OJ thought he felt electricity as her fingers brushed his. ‘I don’t know who she is,’ she said after a few seconds. ‘Can you send it to my phone? I’ll have to check the records. If I’m lucky, you’ll know before lunch. But safe bet is during the afternoon—you can’t do a computer search of the records with an image, you see.’

OJ did as she told him, and then he took a sheet of paper from his file case. ‘Here’s the list of victims,’ he said. ‘You’ll be contacting their parents, I suppose.’

Leah nodded.

OJ stood up. ‘I need to be back in HQ for something. Call me when you find out something about her.’

Leah nodded again, and OJ walked out of the café without trying to look back.

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