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Short Story: Twilight in the Center of the World

Since this is the day of hearts—or Singles Awareness Day, for those of you who celebrate that other holiday—I thought that it’d be fitting to post the only love story I’ve ever written. This was written way back in 2002, won a minor award that same year, and was published in 2003 or 2004 in the Philippine Graphic Magazine. Note that this is my first short story, and there are plenty of things wrong with this piece. But I hope that it manages to entertain you somewhat today.

God and Me by Olivier Agustin

The earthquake began when he put on his woolen socks to go to school.  I swear, I have never ever seen anyone jump as high as he did, only to fall back down flat on his buttocks right afterwards.  His books scattered on the floor beside him, and the baked potato lunch-bag near flew to the dining table, where his two sisters cowered from beneath which, scared to fits they were by the ‘quake, being the blessed four-year olds that they were, the sillies.
Bobby’s father uttered a curse from the second floor, followed by a yell.  “Chelsea!  Make sure the twins’re okay before you take Bobby to school.”  I replied with an affirmative, dragged the twins out from under the table, and deposited them in the arms of the big, black cook.  “Bobby!  We’re going in a few!  Get yourself fixed up proper,” I yelled.
Bobby’s family was often that helter-skelter, on their best days; they were pure pandemonium on their worst.  He was the second child in a family of four.  The parents were both high-strung, swore freely and fluently all the way from home to their work (or at least I think they did) and were sometimes too impersonal to really figure greatly in the lives of their children.  The eldest son was in graduate school, taking up his masters in philosophy.  The twins were an anomaly.  They had light-brown eyes, an adolescent sense of humor, giggled like a pair of grown-ups, and listened all day long to Sesame Street minus one cassette tapes.
Bobby was the self-proclaimed black sheep of the brood, a young boy of seventeen working his way through high school with a job at a nearby hobby store.  His folks were rich, but he settled on the idea that a little bit of extra money wouldn’t really hurt.  Plus, it gave him something to do.
One of his quirks was pretending that he could see ghosts.  Bobby made up names for the different “people” he said he saw all around him, but there were three that popped up more often than the others.  These were Midas and Rapunzel and Clementine.  He’d tell me, while I was driving the car to school and complaining about how hungry I was; “Clementine says we should stop by the McDonalds at the outskirts of town for breakfast.”  And this, while chewing on some pancakes he had swiped from the table that morning.  I found it cute, his parents found it irritating, and the twins would probably flip out if they even knew about it.
I was Bobby’s senior in school; my folks happened to be his parents’ friends back in the city, so they asked me if I would be kind enough to bring Bobby to school, since I had my own car and all.  I was only too happy to oblige; I was paid a regular weekly stipend for my trouble.  This was a big help getting through the week for a latchkey kid.
Bobby watched me drive with a silent look that could win me a Nobel prize if I could decipher what it meant.  “How strong was that earthquake this morning?”
“Well, we can’t really be sure,” I replied with an air of authority.  I always sound like I’m saying something big whenever I’m talking to him.  “That depends on a lot of things.”
“Like what?”  Bobby had this inquisitive voice that left a huge impression of a question mark whenever he asked you something.  He was no shallow Hal, this kid; that was the biggest problem I often faced whenever I had to explain something.
I took a deep breath.  “Well, for starters, your location.  If you were near the ‘quake’s center, it’d be pretty violent.”
“Why?” he asked.  “What’s at the ‘quake’s center that makes it so special?”
I gave him a sideway glance. “That’s the ‘quake’s origin. It’s like standing on top of a table while one of the twins is hammering away underneath. If you’re sitting on a chair beside the table, you’re not going to feel the hammering, but if you’re on top of it, you’re going to feel the ground beneath you shaking.”
“I’m surprised you don’t know this, a smart kid like you.”
“I guess I never saw it that way.  Sort of like a ripple in the river, right?”  We were driving a point that overlooked the bay at this exact moment, and Bobby stared out at the water.  He saw a branch, a gull, and some kids splashing about.  Bataan Bay was picturesque this time of the morning.  Children of fishermen and boatmen from the beaches often waded in at this hour, splashing around for their morning play.  “And so, as a pebble can turn the tide of a flood,” said Bobby, “sturdy steel buildings can sustain an earthquake. My darling Clementine.”

The next day, Bobby was in low spirits.  “Do you have any idea how difficult it could be, living with those people?” he asked me on our way to school.  He’d been grounded for talking to his “friends” in front of the twins.  The girls were scared to death, thinking that Bobby was talking to ghosts. The little twerp said that he was, and that didn’t go too well with his sisters, or his parents.
“So what happened?” I asked.
Bobby shrugged.  “There was this long argument about how I was too old to be having imaginary friends.  They can’t seem to come to terms with the whole thing.”
His “friends” each had their roles. Midas was supposedly his shrink, Rapunzel was a lunatic.  Clementine was a girl he loved.  But I knew better than to believe in the things he said he saw, and called him out often.
“But you don’t really see them, do you?”
“That’s correct.”  Bobby kept quiet for the rest of the ride.  He played with the door handles, pulling them and then letting go, creating a sudden snapping sound.  Before he climbed out of the car at school, he snapped the handles one more time and said, “But what they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
I didn’t see how this was helping him unless he wanted people to leave him alone.  He wasn’t socially inept, though.  From what I saw in school, he was pretty popular, not exactly famous, but he had enough of a following around the campus.  But we rarely spoke to each other during breaks.  I seldom met him in the hallways, and when I did, he always sounded as if he was in a hurry.  We usually talked on the way to school, and going back home.

Our homebound talks were longer than the morning conversations, due to the steady build-up of traffic.  We had this long conversation once when a dead carabao and an overturned cement truck blocked the main road.  Bobby was telling me about the sijo, a poetic form he had discovered this morning while surfing the Internet.
“It’s a three-line poem, see,” he was saying, while the sun beat down on the dusty main road going to our town.  “It’s usually thirty-three to forty-five syllables in total length.  The first line starts a topic, the second broadens it, and the third line ends it.  There aren’t any language or rhythm restrictions, but you have to remember that the third line’s the most important.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“The third line is the pivotal point of the poem.  You have to sum up the whole piece with that line, but you also have to do it in such a way that there’s a certain twist.”  Bobby stopped talking as the traffic moved along.  The truck had been moved from the road, and it now lay in the cogon field to the right.  The dead carabao, however, was still sprawled on the gravel.
Bobby continued after we passed the carabao.  “Just like a ripple in the water, the center is where the ripple is the strongest, but the wake is what you usually see. It’s the same with the sijo. The start, and the end, are the most important parts of the poem.”
He wrote a sijo which he let me read.  It was about this high ridge in the mainland Bataan hills that he called Malang Bagsak, after the dead artist;

On Malang Bagsak we spread our wings
to cultivate our intimate pleasures.
The swift winds and the view achieves in us
a fire so red and so fulfilling that proves us of our life.
Oh only if I could grab the singlest emotion
and keep it with me as I fall over the edge.

That was pretty neat, so I gave Bobby a thumbs-up.  He grinned and balled up the piece of paper, and tossed it out the window just as we passed Malang Bagsak ridge.  “Someday, I’d want to really just look over this ridge and see the whole world.  Both Midas and Rapunzel think that if you concentrate deep enough, this ridge would become the center of the whole world.”  
I found this odd and said so.  Bobby just grinned.

One day, I found Bobby in a huff.  He slammed the door as he went outside, and kept quiet all the way to school.  I didn’t see him at all that day.  Then again, that wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary, since I rarely saw him at all.  I got really worried when I got to my car in the afternoon though.  His mood had worsened.  Bobby usually calmed down during classes whenever he was in lousy spirits in the morning.
“I talked to Midas in front of my friends today,” he told me as I drove out of the town.  I concentrated on the road since we had gotten out later than usual, and night was peeking in through the clouds.
I asked him, “Why’d you do that?  And how’d they take it?”
Bobby watched me as I drove.  “I don’t know.  It just happened, natural as breathing.  You know how it is – these things start from something insignificant, then starts snowballing.”
“How did they take it?” I pressed.
“They thought I was crazy.”  Bobby was playing with a black pen.  “They thought I was just being wacky at first, but when I told them I was serious, they began to look at me like I was some sort of freak.  I started doing this a couple of days ago. They’re avoiding me now.”
Why he was trying to alienate himself from people was beyond me.  I asked him why he was doing it, but he just shrugged and said he didn’t know, it just happened.  That was when a stoplight turned red just as I was about to cross to the barrio’s main road.  We had just passed Malang Bagsak.
“Look, Bobby.”  I took the opportunity to look him in the eye and try to get something through.  “I personally think that Midas and Rapunzel and Clementine are all pretty amusing, but that’s me.  You’ve got to realize that the rest of the world has its own say to things.  You can’t expect everybody to take it like I do.”
“That’s exactly what my dad said last night.”  I could imagine how his father did it.  Small wonder that he was in such a bad mood that morning.  “Some people just can’t seem to fully grasp the whole idea.”  I told him I had no idea what he was talking about.

My grandmother died the next day, and I had to go to Manila to attend her wake.  I was gone for a week, and I told Bobby’s family that I wasn’t going to be able to take Bobby to school.  Bobby sent me an e-mail every day, mostly describing how being picked up by his brother was nothing compared to the stimulating drives he had with me.
I got back to Bataan on a humid, stormy Friday.  I passed by Bobby’s house on the way to my own apartment, and decided to stop by to say hello.
Bobby’s brother waved out to me as I came up the drive.  “Hey there!  Glad you’re back.  Bobby’s been crazy the past few days.”
“Crazy?” I asked.
He shrugged.  “He’s been talking nonstop to his imaginary friends, he calls them Midas and Rapunzel I think, as if they were with him all the time.  He even talks to them while he’s in the bathroom.  It’s really weird.  My parents have threatened to have him thrown into the nuthouse if he doesn’t stop it, since he’s driving the twins and his teachers up the wall.  There’ve been complaints from school, you see.”
My eyes widened with what I heard. He had never mentioned any of his friends in his letters.  “It’s that bad?”
“Yeah,” he replied with a nod.  “I think you should talk to him.  He listens to you.”
“Where is he?”
“We don’t really know.  He hasn’t come back from school, although he said he was going to go home late today.”
I made my way to the school, but was stopped short at the main road.  A car had been speeding and had run over a carabao and hit a hydrant.  The traffic was heavy; nothing I hadn’t gotten used to in Manila, but it was infuriating to be stuck at the intersection when you were in a hurry.  A whole fifteen minutes had gone by the time I was able to make the turn going out of the village.
It was raining when I got to the ridge, but I was able to make out a small figure at the precipice.  On a hunch, I turned into the parking area of the overlook, and peered through the downpour.
Sure enough, Bobby was there. He had his back turned to the road, and was sitting on a small box he’d brought with him, staring out into Bataan Bay.  I put the car on park, brought out an umbrella, trudged up to him and said, “Hi.”
“You’re back,” he replied, without turning around.  He was holding a small envelope in his hands, which had my Manila address on the back.  “I was going to send you another letter today.  A real one, too.  But I’m glad you’re here. ”
“I appreciate your letters.  I got all of them, every one.”  I paused to pick my words carefully.  “How come you never told me you were talking more and more often to Midas and Rapunzel?”  I shook my head.  “Don’t you remember what I told you?  About other people?”
He turned the letter over and over in his hands.  “Midas and Rapunzel – did you notice, I didn’t talk much to Clementine?  I didn’t see Clementine at all during the past week.”
“Oh yeah?”  I asked gently.  Something didn’t feel right.  “You remember that one time in the car? You told me they weren’t real, that it was all just pretend. Now come on inside the car. You’re going to get sick.”
“Oh yes, they are very real.”  Bobby stood up and turned to look at me.  He looked more haggard than I had ever seen him before; I could imagine old people who looked less emaciated.  His eyes were red, almost as if he had been crying.  All traces of the easygoing glow in the pupils were gone; the last time I looked at his eyes this intently was during the earthquake.
There was still his silly grin on his face, but this was accompanied by a sickly pallor and deep shadows under his eyes.  His left cheek quivered, a muscle twitching on its own volition.  “Midas and Rapunzel.  And Clementine.  They are all very real.  Just as real as Bobby and Chelsea are real.”
I shook my head. The rain was really pouring now, and we were both going to get sick if we stayed out here any longer. This boy was getting to my nerves.  “Then where are they?  Tell me where they are!  Show me where Midas and Rapunzel and Clementine are, if they’re real.  Can’t you see what these ‘friends’ of yours have done to you, kid?  You’ve scared off your family, your friends.  You even look like you’re sick!  If there’s anybody who looks like a ghost, it’s you! Come on, let’s go!”
“They are. . .”  Bobby raised his right hand and pointed up to the stars that were hidden by the heavy downpour, then slowly brought it down to point at himself.  “They are here.  I am the smartypants that is Midas.  I am the crazy one, just as Rapunzel is.  And Clementine . . ” He broke off, musing softly, half to himself.   “Yes, Clementine.  It’s funny how you never noticed.”
“Noticed what? Bobby! Let’s go!”  I stepped forward to grab him, but he stepped back.  “You’re acting like an idiot! Come on!”
“Clementine . . . Chelsea, I had enclosed directions in this letter for you to give it to Clementine.”  Bobby now held out his hands, gesturing to the letter he had addressed to me.  “Please.  The next time you see Clementine, should she want to go to a McDonald’s again, please give this to her.  I loved her so much.”
“What?”  I was confused.  “How could I give this to Clementine if I don’t know who she is or how she looks like?”
“Take it,” said Bobby, and he pressed the letter into my outstretched hand.  “Open the letter and read it.  I’m sure you’ll find out who Clementine is once you read the letter. Then we’ll go.”
“Bobby, you… Argh!” I tucked the umbrella in between my shoulder and chin, and opened the letter.  The wind from the bay was making it difficult to keep the envelope from flying away into the highway, so I turned away from the ridge to shield my hands.
It was a letter all in sijo, different sijo with different dates, and different topics. It spoke of the earthquake.  It ranted about the Bay, about poetry, about psychotic tendencies and illnesses, about having fun.
Above all else, it spoke about love.
I read the letter, even as it got soggier and soggier in my hands that stormy Friday night. The letter ended with the sijo Bobby had shown me, the one about Malang Bagsak.  And it slowly dawned on me, as I stood there surrounded by the cacophony of the wind and the water, who Clementine was.  I turned around, with my mouth agape, to an empty box sitting by the precipice of Malang Bagsak.
I found out who Clementine was. But I was too late to do anything about it.
But I’m pretty sure, that – as Bobby fell down the ridge and into the waters of Bataan Bay that night – I’m pretty sure that, whatever had happened, he’d managed to become the center of his own earthquake that night, just as he had become the center of the world, even if it was just a moment.

I’m sure that it was enough to make him happy.  And I’m confident that he took that emotion with him as he fell down Malang Bagsak.


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