By Eliza Victoria
The skies in that small town remain dark from the past wars.
The smoke of gunfire and shattered bones covers the sun like a veil. All that is left for those still living are the tiny shacks of the dead soldiers and the old church, and a night that doesn’t seem to end.
But they have ways of telling the passing of the hours: heartbeats, the cry of the lizards, bloody tallies on pale skin. And in the mornings, without fail, the Wardens gather in the old church, weaving around the now useless pews, to their Leader standing by the altar, holding her weapon in her hands.
They, too, hold their weapons, waiting for the signal. The Wardens’ hands do not shake when they carry the black metal balls, balanced on their palms like an offering to the altar. The balls, fashioned from the cannon balls of their barbaric forefathers, are attached by an intricate chain to their right wrists, entwined around the fingers of their right hands.
And in the mornings, without fail, their Leader stands in front of them and says in a clear voice, “Today, justice shall be served.” The balls are then dropped, but will not be allowed to kiss the ground.
The Wardens have long before destroyed the images of the saints and the gods, and they glance at the empty pedestals each morning as they leave, genuflecting to their triumphs. Only one icon has been replaced.
On the altar, behind the Leader, rises a marble statue of their one and only accepted Superior: the Lady, blindfolded, resplendent in a flowing gown, one arm akimbo and holding a sword, the other raised to the level of her shoulders. Her previous images show her carrying scales, but that is before the certainty of the Wardens, before the need to balance both sides has been rendered obsolete.
Now the statue of the Lady carries a black, metal ball, glistening like an omniscient eye at the end of a chain.
Helena was sitting right outside with her sketchbook when her brother invited the lawyer to the living room for a drink.
Helena knew his brother needed the drink more than the lawyer. An hour ago the two men had a talk in his brother’s library, and the lawyer made her brother cry. Helena knew this, because she was standing right outside the door when it happened, trying to make out the words. When her brother started shouting, the words cut clear through the wood.
“So now they want to re-open the case?” her brother said.
Then her brother was crying. Helena opened the door slowly at that point and saw the lawyer standing by a bookshelf. “Stephen, please,” she heard the lawyer say, but he remained standing where he was, not even moving to give her brother a pat on the shoulder.
Stephen was sitting by his study table. He gave a start when he heard the door open, and he turned his face away from her. “Helena,” he said then, wiping his face in a way that he probably thought was inconspicuous. “I thought you were outside.”
There was a silent pause as the lawyer straightened his tie and his brother tried and tried to dry his face.
Helena walked up to him. “What’s wrong now?” she asked him in that numb voice she had carried from the day they moved out of New York, out of that suburb, that house.
Helena would often find herself sitting outside of her brother’s house, staring for hours at the road, her hands on her lap, her hands held open as if offering something. What do I feel? she would ask herself, and she would be so disturbed by the question that she wouldn’t be able move. What do I feel?
Stephen wouldn’t tell her what he and that lawyer were talking about. But she had heard the word, case. She had heard the word, re-open. And again she sat outside, staring, asking: What do I feel? She could feel dread somewhere, and disgust, but it was as if they were outside of her, like scorned friends, and she couldn’t make them come in.
The lawyer’s name was Parker. Helena had met him before. Parker was their lawyer’s assistant back in the States, and she could still remember the look on his face when he saw her flinch at the sound of his name, and at the sight of him.
Parker was half-Filipino, she was told, right after Stephen saw the panic in her eyes, and she remembered thinking, What’s the use of having a Filipino mother if your skin is white and your hair is blond and you speak just like him and you sound just like him and your cheek is clear enough to contain a scar and there are spaces between your fingers big enough for a trigger—
The words were on the verge of being spoken. It was the look on Parker’s face that stopped them, froze them before Helena could even open her mouth.
Helena could still remember that look because she saw it again just last week, this time on the face of one of Stephen’s students. Stephen was rattled that day, Helena could tell, because he kept rearranging the objects on his desk, putting his pen here, a folder on one corner, transporting a short stack of books from one side of the tabletop to another so carefully as though the mere act could change his life, and for some reason still couldn’t find the examination papers that the student had come to get in his office that morning. The student was tall and thin, freckled, blond. An American.
“Syriana,” the student suddenly said, appraising the movie poster tacked on the office wall behind Helena, who was sitting on a wooden bench perpendicular to Stephen’s desk. Stephen stopped moving at the sound of her voice. The student looked at him, at Helena, then smiled sheepishly at the suspension she had caused, perhaps thinking she had just committed a serious Filipino faux pas.
“Yes,” Stephen said after several beats, fingers moving again, hauling objects. “You’ve seen it?”
“Yes,” said the student, smiling openly now, proud of herself. “I remember this scene? Matt Damon and his wife by this fountain in Switzerland? My mind has been, like, floating, and I thought they were still in the United States, until Matt Damon or the wife said something like, When are you gonna fly to the United States. And I was like, Where are they anyway?”
The student chuckled. “I mean, they’re in Geneva, but the place looked like Central Park.”
“One day everywhere will look like Central Park,” Stephen said. “Try cruising through Manila. Turn off the lights to hide the black hair and the brown skin and you’ll see McDonald’s and 7-Eleven’s and Wendy’s in every corner. One day everywhere will look like where you came from. Just shoot the brown people dead, and you’re home. Home means only white people in sight, isn’t that right? Isn’t that what you guys want, to see home everywhere?”
Stephen’s voice was rising, and as he spoke the student looked at him with her mouth slightly parted. Halfway through his tirade, her face collapsed, finally understanding what the outburst was all about.
“I don’t know, sir,” the student said, because Stephen appeared to be waiting for an answer. “I’m just one person.”
Stephen was not able to find her papers, and because she had left the room too quickly, he was also not able to apologize.
“You shouldn’t have said that to her,” Helena whispered, because she saw Parker’s face in that student’s face, which could even be Stephen’s face, up on that stand five years ago: hurt and wounded, already judged but still pleading to be understood.
The Wardens are everywhere.
With their dark hair and dark clothing, they blend perfectly into the town’s crevices. Like a black teardrop falling into a black ocean, they step into corners, into unlit alleys, into homes, on rooftops, on the belfry of the old church, silent, and immobile. The people of the town can pretend they are not there. In their homes, women can make love to their men. In narrow streets, lovers and friends can sit together and exchange secrets. On the vast grounds of the church, on the cold rooftops, children can hoot and feed the birds or play. They can do all this, but they know their freedom is not absolute. They know the Wardens, though seemingly lifeless, are watching them. From the corners, from the windows above, from the darkness, they know the Wardens can see their every move.
The Wardens do not speak, do not blink, do not leave a post empty. The Wardens do not miss anything.
Once a woman strangles her man on her bed, once a lover or a friend takes a knife and stabs another in that dark, dark street, once a child pushes a playmate over the edge of a roof, the Wardens will flex the fingers of their right hand and immediately liberate their weapons.
It has been said that wars have brought sounds with them, many sounds—screams, moans, gunfire, blasts and explosions—but after the wars, after the Wardenry was set into place, the people need only be wary of two sounds: the sound of a Warden’s cannon ball kissing the ground, and the sound of the chain whistling through the air as the ball is lifted and thrown into the skull of the Trespasser.
“Helena’s so big now,” Parker was saying.
The sliding glass door was slightly open, something Stephen probably failed to notice due to the curtains, and so Helena could hear them: their footsteps, the soft pop of a bottle being opened, the rustle of pants, clink of ice. “How old is she now?” A pause. Helena pictured Parker taking a sip from his drink. “Fifteen?”
“Yes.” There was a gentle swoosh—her brother sinking into the sofa.
“Online classes, tutors. She tried the regular classes, but—“
“I’m so sorry.”
During those early therapy sessions, she was given a sketchbook not unlike the one she now had, and a box of crayons. They used to give her dolls, but she wouldn’t touch them, and so they gave up on that, turned to the possibilities in her artwork.
She drew only one image, over and over: two circles, one inside the other, the outer circle red, the inner one black. After coloring her drawing, only the black circle would remain looking like a circle. The red one always ended up looking more like a splash.
What does this mean, sweetheart? they would ask her, but Helena wouldn’t answer. Wasn’t it obvious what that red splotch was, what that black ball was? She would just continue to color, using up the black and red crayons, smudging her fingers, filling her nails with the smell of wax.
She knew they’d shown Stephen the drawings. She couldn’t understand why they scared them so much, why it didn’t worry them that it was a place they couldn’t even visit, and couldn’t visit them. There were many worlds, and she fell into that world only once, into the body of a girl who was her and wasn’t her.
She remembered standing in a pool of blood, embracing an older girl in gratitude. Everything was dark, in that world, but her family was alive. She remembered wanting to stay there forever.
When she got back (Catatonia, they say. Recovery. Waking up.) she made the mistake of mentioning this to the counselors, who smiled sadly and took notes.
During the early days of the Wardenry, an old man enters the church with a young woman and asks for an audience with the Wardens.
“Halt, old man,” says the first Warden Leader, sitting at the feet of the Lady, surrounded by the Wardens waiting for their turn to guard the town. When the old man takes another step, they all stand at attention, save for the Leader who lets a smile creep across her lips.
She knows what the old man wants. Both he and the young woman are wearing the red robes of the dissidents, making them stand out garishly against the drabness of the roads, the blackness of the old church’s occupants.
“You are very young,” says the old man, in a tone both fascinated and appalled. The young woman stands behind him, glaring at the Wardens, wrapping her red robe closer around her body.
The Leader slides to her feet, walks toward him.
“And yet you were able to kill my wife and her friends.”
The Leader smiles once again, sadly this time. The old man is talking about the Mass Punishment on the church patio, four women and three men, struck to the head at the count of three.
“We did it at night, while the town slept,” says the Leader, the smile gone now. “You were not supposed to see that, old man. There is no need to turn a punishment into a spectacle.”
“One can hear your weapons swinging for miles and miles,” the old man says.
“Your wife,” says the Leader, “and her friends almost killed three men, old man. The men’s families heard the swinging weapons as well. But not our weapons.”
“My wife is avenging her family,” says the old man. “Those three men are former landowners. They made a lot of people miserable. They made my wife’s father suffer.”
“Where were you during the Citizens’ Gathering, old man?” the Leader says, arms crossed, the black ball oscillating ominously at the end of the chain. “We’ve agreed to begin a new age, to start over. We’ve agreed to put all past crimes behind us.”
“We have murderers in our midst, rapists, criminals, all roaming around free in this new age of yours,” the old man says, shaking. “We have victims. If you do not want the people to serve justice themselves, you have the responsibility to—“
“Do it for them, yes?” the Leader says. “And how far back will we go, old man? You are suggesting we visit every single house and get a list of the people the citizens want punished. And how about those who will be punished? I’m certain they would have their own list as well. And the people in those lists will have a list as well. In the end we Wardens will carry out not a Mass Punishment but a complete wipeout. The list will cull past angers, past relationships, past sins and sinners, and obliterate every single person living in this town today. You think you are clean, old man? You think you have lived a straight and decent life? Then wait for the lists, and I wager you’ll see your name at least five times, in the lists of five people who for the longest time you’ve considered your closest friends, who, until now, have made up their minds to simply forgive you. But no, you are respectable and law-abiding, and so now they are forced to recall the Trespasses you’ve done them, and we have to punish you five times over.
“Revenge is a loop, old man. We have agreed to erase all misdeeds that have occurred before the Gathering in order to end this loop—“
“And start another one?” the old man says.
The Leader laughs. “Justice is not a loop, old man. Justice is the point at the end of a straight line. Justice is the end, the conclusion, the aim.”
The old man stares at her, then begins to sob.
“And would you rather we all kill each other?” the Leader says. “Just a day—one day—after the Gathering and the setting of the New Laws, a massacre almost occurred in the south part of town. We were able to prevent it. We were able to save the life of an entire family. Now you, old man, may consider that obstruction inauthentic, mechanical, but we don’t care. You may look at us with pity in your eyes, we who follow erroneous edicts, we who naively see the glorious pursuit for freedom as Trespasses, we who perceive what you would consider a truly free individual as a criminal, but we don’t care. The youngest in that family is an eight-year-old child.”
The Leader can hear the young woman weeping, can see her struggling with an object hidden within the folds of her red robes.
The old man is not able to speak for a long time. Then: “My youngest son is among you.” He walks about, searching their faces, prompting the Wardens closest to him to release their weapons. The unanimous clang does not upset him, or stop him. “Where are you, son? Where were you while your mother is being murdered?”
“How dare you let our mother die!” the young woman shouts, whipping out a gun from inside her robes and pointing it at a Warden standing three rows behind. But the Wardens are quick; she is dead before she can even find the trigger.
The wet sound forces the old man to turn around. He stares at his daughter. “No,” he said. He does not move. He does not fall to his knees.
“I advise you to leave immediately, old man,” says the Leader. She gestures with her head, and two Wardens quickly step up to him and lead him out of the church.
When the old man is gone, the first Warden Leader calls a Warden by name.
“Were you among those who carried out the Mass Punishment?” the Leader asks.
“No, Leader,” replies the Warden.
Pause. “Would you like to bury your sister?”
“I’d be honored,” replies the Warden. “But she is not my sister. I don’t have a sister. I don’t have a family.”
The Leader turns to him and smiles. Her Wardens are trained well. The system will last. They will continue on for years and years. “Today,” she whispers, “justice has been served.”
The two of them weren’t the only members of the family who survived the massacre.
But Helena refused to think of what happened to Selena as “surviving”. The man with the scar struck her head against the wall, and the blow caused such damage that all Selena could do on her own in her final days was cry and convulse.
When they arrived in the Philippines, Stephen opted to take Selena home with them instead of putting her in a hospital. He placed her in a room on the second floor. The room contained all the right equipment, but the wrong nurse.
The nurse Stephen managed to hire was hotheaded, easily annoyed. Sometimes she’d neglect Selena and let her shit or piss on her seat. Selena was often on her wheelchair in front of the television, and one day they found her crying haplessly at an episode of Eat! Bulaga while her feces trickled down from the hem of her nightgown.
The sound of them barging through the door startled the nurse, who had been flipping through a magazine. Stephen gripped the nurse’s neck and banged her against the wall. “You bitch!” Helena heard him shout. The nurse whimpered, and Stephen cursed again, this time using the Filipino word that Helena had yet to learn.
Parker flew frequently to the Philippines to see his mother, and sometimes he would visit them. During one of those visits, two months after Selena’s funeral, Helena passed out.
She was standing in her bedroom, listening to the strained, aimless chatter of the two men downstairs as they fixed dinner, when she suddenly felt a piercing pain in her temple and fainted. She woke up to the sound of his brother’s voice.
“I feel sick,” Helena told him, and stood up from his lap and ran to the bathroom. She heaved air. Then the pain came again, and Stephen and Parker saw her crying on the bathroom floor, clutching her head.
“Sweetheart?” Parker said, kneeling beside her. Helena put her arms around his waist, digging her head into his chest. “My head,” Helena said, over and over.
“Here’s your brother,” Parker said, signaling to Stephen, who was already jabbing at the phone’s keypad. “I’m going to call an ambulance.”
Migraine was the diagnosis, and Helena was stumped by the simplicity of it. She had assumed it was something more deadly: a brain tumor, a creeping aneurysm. All throughout the gurney ride and the hospital tests, the part of her brain that the pain permitted to think thought it would be something that would leave her weeping at noontime comedy, staining her seat and her dress and her skin with the color of her excrement.
She imagined herself convulsing in her sleep. She imagined herself wishing so much to die but being unable to say it, her tongue dry and useless, stuck perpetually to the roof of her mouth.
And then it hit her. That’s what Selena was crying about. She wanted to die, but couldn’t convey the message.
Helena thought it would be disastrous if she waited too long before telling her brother. “Kuya,” she whispered to the back of his head as Parker drove them back home. She was stretched on the back seat. Both men thought she was sleeping and gave a start when she spoke.
“Does your head still hurt?” Stephen asked.
Helena’s head was still fogged up due to the medicine injected into her, but she knew she was thinking clearly. “Are they sure it’s just migraine?”
“Don’t say ‘just’, sweetheart,” said Parker. “My Mom has it, and it can really hurt.”
“Papa had it,” Stephen said. “Do you remember?”
“But are they sure?” Helena said.
“That’s what the doctor said.”
“Maybe he missed something,” Helena said. “Maybe I have cancer.”
“No, you don’t,” said Stephen. “They checked for that, too.”
“But I can have it,” Helena said, and Stephen replied with a sigh. “Maybe not now, but in the future. It’s possible, right? Or I can hit my head pretty bad. Be in an accident.”
“What are you talking about, Helena?”
“I want you to promise me something,” Helena said. “If whatever happened to Ate ever happened to me, promise me that you won’t let me live.”
“I don’t want to be like that. And I don’t think Ate did, too.”
“Helena,” Parker said.
But it was dark. She couldn’t see Stephen’s face. “I need him to promise me now,” she told Parker. “If I don’t hear his answer now, it might be too late and I won’t be able to talk and he’ll do what he wants. So I need him to promise me now.”
“Helena,” Stephen said, “stop it.”
“But when will I speak like this, then?” she asked. “When I’m already pissing on my wheelchair? Parker can write something up. Right, Parker? Something for my brother to sign?”
Parker didn’t move a muscle.
“Helena, please,” Stephen said.
“You need to promise me,” Helena said. “Kuya, if that happens to me and you still insisted to keep me in a room, I’ll—“ She groped for a word. “I’ll hate you. Okay? I’ll hate you.”
“I can’t—“ Stephen said, but stopped.
Promise? Listen? Think? What? “Promise me,” Helena said. “Kuya? Promise me.”
“Helena,” Parker said gently. “Come on.”
Helena ignored him. “I’ll take that as a yes,” Helena told her brother.
Stephen’s shoulders were as still as a wall. “All right, Kuya? I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Justice and the Law,” the first Warden Leader says, “need not be oppressive. Before the Wardenry was officially formed, we members have studied the follies of past totalitarian regimes. These regimes created New Laws without telling their people, and made their people ignorant of the Law, made them live in fear. They created Laws without logic, and without heart, and made their people hate the Law, made their people rebellious. They created Laws that do not apply to every single citizen, and made their people doubt the Law, made them scornful of the Law’s Enforcers. Why should the people live their lives in terror and uncertainty, not knowing if their next move will bring a bullet through their head? Why should the people be denied Justice?
“In this new age,” says the first Warden Leader, “you, Citizens, will know the Law, and any changes that will be made to it, so you will no longer fear it. You, Citizens, will be given a Law with mind and heart, so you will no longer feel the need to rebel against it. You, Citizens, in the eyes of the Law, will be treated equally, so you will no longer doubt it.
“And we, your Wardens, will not love you. But we will not hate you, either. We will not make ties. We will not make friends. We will be taken from our families, and will not create families, so we can answer to no one but the Law. We will watch you and listen to you, so we can catch the Trespass as it happens, obliterating the need for trial, for evidence, for witnesses, for testimonies, for pleas. We will be everywhere. We will not make mistakes.
“Together, we will create a Law that we will understand and know by heart, a Law that we will love and embrace, a Law that will be applicable to every single one of us. With those conditions set, there will no need to balance the scales, or to listen to a Trespasser’s motives or reasons. It will be clear that whosoever breaks the Law in this new age truly knows and understands his or her deed, truly knows and understands the punishment for that deed.
“It will be clear that whosoever breaks the law truly deserves to hear the song of our chains.”
“So what pushed them to re-open the case?” Helena heard her brother say behind the sliding glass doors, probably already finished with his first drink, probably already tired with the small talk.
The tiny crack between the door and the wall was still undetected, and Helena moved closer to it.
Parker sighed. “New witness?” Stephen said irritably. “New evidence? Or is the mayor just planning to pursue a second term?”
Again, a sigh from Parker. Helena heard him grunt, heard the lock of his briefcase clicking and snapping. “He,” Parker began. “There was.”
“He struck again, Stephen,” Parker said. A swoosh, papers riffling like continuous gunshots.
There was a pause. Helena gripped her sketchbook and drew random lines and squiggles on a sheet.
“When?” Stephen said.
“Two days ago. It’s all over the news over there. I was wondering if it’s already reached—“
“I don’t pay attention to the news anymore.”
Parker didn’t comment.
“Filipinos?” Stephen asked.
“Are you sure you want to read the police report, Stephen?” Parker asked.
A long pause, in which Helena felt heavier and heavier, as though she were about to hit the ground.
“Midnight,” said Parker. “A guy, and his twelve-year-old girl. He’s a young father, a consultant, did pretty well. He had the girl at age eighteen, so that makes him just thirty. The two men came in—“
“Two,” Stephen said.
“So there were two.”
“Did they—“ Fingers riffling through pages. “The father’s alive,” said Stephen.
“Yes,” said Parker. “And here’s why we want to re-open your case. While the two men were roughing him up, they blabbed to him. They spoke about your family. They gave details that the police never released to anyone.”
Stephen remained silent.
“The father’s already agreed to serve as witness,” said Parker, like a salesman dangling a new toy.
“If the jury believed us the first time, that girl would still be alive,” Stephen said, to which Parker didn’t have an answer.
They knew that what finally killed the case was the mistake they made in the line-up.
The defense latched onto it, more viciously and more hungrily than on the other inconsistencies that had confused the jury and eventually invalidated the two of them in their eyes.
But in their minds, there were no inconsistencies. It was midnight when the two men came and stood on their front porch, the man with the scar even ringing the doorbell like a friend.
The Jimenezes had been flying to and from that house in the past two years, and they’d never heard anything about any racist killing sprees within that neighborhood. They’d never received any strange phone calls, any slurs. And so when their father opened the door for the two men, he did so with a smile on his face.
It was their first week as immigrants. They’d fixed all the papers, they were going to live in that suburb for the rest of their lives. That night all six of them—- Stephen, Selena, Nick, Regina, Adam, and Helena—- were allowed to stay up late.
After dinner, Regina, Nick and Adam sat down with their parents in the living room to watch a movie while Selena locked herself up in her bedroom to read a book. Stephen and Helena were in Selena’s bathroom, Stephen finally deciding to spend the night with the baby of the family by messing up her face with Selena’s cosmetic collection.
“If I see one tube,” Selena shouted at them that night from her bed, “just one tube misplaced on my sink tomorrow, I’m gonna come into your rooms and strangle the both of you.” And with that she turned off her bedside lamp, put on her headphones, and fell asleep to the sounds of a jazz album.
What did their father see when he looked through the peephole? The man with the scar was tall and pale, thirtyish, clean-shaven. That night he was wearing a jacket, jeans. With his gloved hands and his gun with the silencer in his pocket he must have looked normal enough. A yuppie, a father of one.
Their father must have mistaken him for a neighbor with a plumbing problem, out to ask for a small favor. Do you have a wrench? What did that man say that made their father trust him so quickly, made him open the door without fear?
It was midnight when their father opened the door and received a bullet to the head, midnight when Stephen stopped wiping Helena’s face dry, both of them frozen by the otherworldly sound of their mother screaming.
Stephen wanted to go out, wanted to yank the headphones off Selena’s ears and wake her. But seconds before he could actually sort through his thoughts he heard footsteps coming up the stairs. He locked the bathroom door, placed the chair Helena had been standing on under the knob. Turned off the light.
Helena began to cry. He pressed her face into his side to muffle the sound she was making, and just stood there.
The bedroom door was kicked open. Selena must have heard that through the fog of piano and saxophones. “What,” they heard her say. She must be sitting up now, wrapping the headphones’ cords around her shoulder, squinting at the form by the door.
The man threw her facedown on the floor, near the bathroom door. Stephen and Helena felt her land, and felt the man land on top of her. They fell to their stomachs—-first Stephen, then Helena, mimicking him—-trying their best to see through the plastic slats at the bottom of the door. They saw Selena, eyes glassy as the man touched her. They saw the man. They saw his scar.
“Clearly?” asked the defense. The image was clear that night. At the line-up they could only see their sister’s face.
Stephen picked Helena up and ran to the bathtub. “Why don’t you take your clothes off for me, darling?” said the man with the scar. Selena screamed.
“Shut up,” the man said. Selena wouldn’t. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
There was only the sound, but they knew what he did, and after that impact Selena fell silent. The man with the scar left the room. They couldn’t hear anything at all from downstairs. At one point they heard their mother scream, You animals, you animals. Then nothing.
“Where’s your brother?” they heard the man growl. In court, the defense asked: “Which man?” They didn’t know, they were not sure. “But there were two men.”
Yes, there were two men, said Stephen, on the stand, but later on: I don’t know.
“Where’s your brother?” the man asked. Stephen thought the men saw their family photos, or else just knew how many people there really were in the house.
Stephen stood up at this point, carrying Helena. He removed the chair from the bathroom door, opened the door, started to slip on Selena’s blood, caught himself. Don’t look, he told Helena, transporting her to his back, and opened the window.
They crawled out of Selena’s bedroom window, climbed down the ladder leaning against the roof, and ran, Stephen sweeping Helena into his arms in one swift motion, not slowing down. He felt something hot whisper against his left cheek, saw it hit the wall of the house he’s approaching.
“What the—“ A man standing on the porch, stunned at the sight of them, at the source of the gunshot. “Hey!”
On the stand, the man said he heard the man with the gun say, Shit, and saw him walk back into the house and walk back out, “really quick”, and dive into a pickup truck parked out front. It was dark, he couldn’t remember if there were two men or only one. He couldn’t remember the color of the vehicle. He was too flustered to note the plate number.
Hours later, the police found their parents, Regina, Adam, and Nick in the living room, all dead, and Selena, barely breathing on her bedroom floor upstairs. There was blood everywhere, and the sickening pig-smell filled the street even days after that night.
There was nothing stolen, nothing missing. No hair, no semen, no fingerprints. The investigators took note of the positions of the bodies and dutifully took pictures.
Both Stephen and Helena were “positive” about the man, and the scar on his face, on his right cheek near his chin. The police whipped through the case files and found three ex-cons who had the same profile—white, male, 5’10’’, with identical scars on one identical location on their faces, all with rap sheets a mile long, covering the ground from assault to murder, all with previous and current connections to the KKK or some similar organization.
Separately Stephen and Helena were made to view a line-up. The sight of so many men with scars rattled them to their bones, but both Stephen and Helena pointed at the same man. Next, shouted the investigator, and here they faltered—-at the second line-up they pointed at two different men, Helena pointing at a different ex-con, Stephen pointing at a lieutenant wearing a prosthesis.
But they pointed at the same man again on the third try, converging, absolving themselves. Or so they thought. The man they chose from the line-ups was arrested only because he didn’t have an alibi for that night, and because he drove a pickup truck.
But during the trial the defense was able to cook up something, and the man with the scar cried during cross-examination, touching the jury’s hearts, their white, white hearts, Stephen would say, and the man with the scar said that he was with the Klan before, but not anymore, that he’s trying to change, that he’s active in church, Parker’s research and the prosecution’s mind tricks doing nothing to break him.
The State couldn’t indict a second man, because Stephen and Helena couldn’t make up their minds if there was a second man. The verdict was not guilty, and they flew back to the Philippines to bury their dead.
It is considered the first Trespass after the Gathering. It occurred at the edge of the town, in a solitary shack perpetually smashed by the wind.
The old people can still remember the patches where the grass and the flowers used to grow in that abandoned field, but now there is nothing but sand, everything buried in sand, the wind blowing into and around the poor house creating whorls into the silt.
The Warden Leader is on watch that day, wrapped in black cloth in order to thwart the grit threatening to enter her eyes. When she sees the man with the scar and his accomplice forcing themselves through the door, she screams, Halt, but the wind carries her voice away along with the sand. Halt, she screams again, and releases her weapon, which sinks several inches into the ground.
The Leader and the Wardens move as quickly as they can, their feet sinking every now and again, their eyes smarting, and converge at the house, surrounding the two men.
The Warden positioned inside the house has the family backed up into a corner, shielded by his body and his arms.
Warden, says the Leader. And the Warden Leader swings her weapon over her head and strikes the two men with one graceful blow.
Thank you, says the littlest of the family members, a little girl, who breaks away from the group and presses her face into the Warden Leader’s stomach after the bodies fall. Her feet are soaked completely in the Trespassers’ spilt blood, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
Thank you, she says, hugging the Leader as well as she can with her tiny, tiny hands. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.
Dusk was falling when Parker pushed the glass door aside and stepped out. He was shocked to see Helena sitting there, but tried to cover it with a smile. If he noticed the slight gap between the door and the wall before he got out, he didn’t show it.
“Oh, hi, sweetie,” he said, touching the top of her head with his fingertips. “I have to go now.”
“Where are you staying?” Helena asked.
“Oh,” he said, slapping his briefcase gently against his leg, ruminating, “Some hotel. I don’t know if I can pass by my Mom’s. I have so much work to do.”
Helena nodded. “Maybe we’d see each other again.”
Parker gazed at her quietly for a long, long while. “Maybe.” He turned to the living room. “Stephen.”
“Take care,” Stephen said, stepping out, and sat down beside Helena. The two of them watched Parker leave.
Helena sat still beside her brother. What do we do now? she wanted to ask him.
“Helena,” Stephen said, after a silence. “We have something very important to talk about.”
Every night, together, they would check the locks on all the doors over and over, they would peek into each other’s bedrooms at random hours. Be careful, they would say to each other whenever they parted ways, even if it was just to take out the garbage, or to fetch something forgotten upstairs, something left behind.
“All right,” Helena said, but that night Stephen didn’t get around to telling her what she already knew. Before dinner the phone rang, and Stephen answered it, and his reply led to another phone call, Stephen calling people up and being called, tying himself up in several conversations.
Helena went up to her room with her sketchbook, recalling the feel of the wood of the witness stand, cool like her father’s old narra bench (her father used to brag that he got it from his own father, but her mother laughed this claim off, saying they actually bought it from an antique store in Ilocos), but not as gentle, or gracious.
Outside Helena, it was night, and inside of her she felt the dark descend. “Oh,” she said, pleased. She found herself sitting at the dinner table, her mother handing out the plates, his father busy cutting up the meat. Stephen, Selena, Nick, Regina, and Adam. She looked at their faces and smiled.
“What’s with you?” Selena said, and pinched her cheek. In one corner of the room stood a Warden, his clothes ink-black, his weapon in plain sight. Helena looked at him and smiled at him too. She was safe now, she thought, receiving the plate being handed to her. She was home.
Tags: Eliza Victoria