You're Not Leaving Me

Charles rubbed his eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to wake himself up. Here he was, stuck in traffic and just one car horn away from his breaking point. It didn't help that the driver of the vintage orange Volkswagen Beetle in front of him was an elderly geezer whose reflexes had, like his hair, long since faded into oblivion. Under normal circumstances, Charles would have been more understanding, but this was not one of them. He was tired, hungry, and moving at roughly the speed of fingernails growing. All he really wanted at that moment was to take a long, hot shower and have a dinner consisting of a cheese sandwich and a Coke while watching whatever basketball match was on. Was that too much to ask? he thought as he gritted his teeth.

This was, by far, the longest day he had ever been through. And Charles was not one to exaggerate.

It had started out normally enough. Same coffee (with sugar, no cream), same early morning rush hour. It was when he got to work that things started to go sour. Last minute meetings popped up everywhere, obnoxious clients flowed in like water, and his boss bawled him out for not submitting a document he didn't even know had been assigned to him. And on top of all that, there was the matter of Olive.

Olive.

When he first met her at a friend's birthday party, he'd immediately been smitten. Everyone said she, his friend's girlfriend's friend, was pretty, with her bright, wide, brown eyes and shy dimpled smile. Charles thought so too, but it was when she spoke up that she had finally reeled him in. Underneath her quiet, shy-type veneer lay an intelligent girl with a fiery spirit who was perfectly at home with wrestling and cars. As they had talked about the WWE and the Z350's amazingly powerful engine, it was like they were being shielded within a bubble of conversation, where the party seemed like a faraway country: tangible but distant. By the time they had finished talking, the only contents of the house were empty glasses and bottles of wine, soiled tableware, some confetti, and two other people. Namely, Charles's friend and his girlfriend, who had both overdone the partying and were too drunk to notice the two other people in the room witnessing their worse side. They had passed out on the smooth black glass of the dining table, and when Charles and Olive thanked the host of the party and asked to leave, he just muttered something too slurred to be audible. In cases like this, people usually just take this response as a yes, whatever you just said, and so Charles and Olive left.

Somehow, their conversation had taken a more personal turn, and they ended up talking about their past relationships. Charles had told Olive about his last serious girlfriend, the gym trainer who, it turned out, would rather do push-ups with a potbellied stranger than spend time with him. In turn, he'd learned about how Olive's ex-boyfriends, all six of them, had dumped her for some other obscure girl. He still remembered the way he'd patted her arm ever so gently as she'd poured her heart out.

How could all those guys dump such a pretty girl?, Carl had thought as they'd exchanged numbers and he'd told her to call him.

She had.

And it wasn't long before they had started dating.

Things had been more than okay for a long while. Everyone was happy about their relationship. Their friends, their families, even their co-workers. They were the perfect couple, everyone said, both being sports and car enthusiasts. It had really seemed they were going somewhere.

But things had started to get out of hand. Once, Olive's calls to Charles had been sweet and appreciated, but they soon turned into a suffocating invasion of privacy, with questions like "Do you have a secret you need to tell me?"

He wasn't the only one who suffered from them. It wasn't uncommon for Olive to besiege Charles's friends and family with the same questions, which resulted in not a few complaints and quite a lot of added stress.

Also, she went ballistic if he so much as glanced at another girl, which was exactly what happened when he ran into Brenda, an old college friend of his, at the mall. They had not seen each other for a long time, and so they talked animatedly about the things they had been doing lately and their other college friends. Unfortunately, Charles had happened to be on a date with Olive at the time, and when she found out that Charles had been talking to another girl, the situation turned into a disaster. Before he could even utter a word of introduction about her to Brenda, she threatened her so menacingly that Brenda looked like she was about to burst into tears. Charles, mortified and shocked by his girlfriend's behavior, apologized profusely to a still shaken Brenda, who was struck speechless by Olive's sudden attack and who didn't appear to be taking in a word of Charles's apology. When Charles felt that he'd said everything he needed to say, he and Olive fled from the scene. Neither one of them said a word, even as Charles pulled over at the narrow sidewalk in front of Olive's quaint apartment.

"Goodnight," Charles had muttered darkly as he pulled the handbrake, his meticulously cared for old Toyota coming to a halt on the slightly potholed asphalt. He'd had the Toyota since he was eighteen, and he'd treasured it ever since, especially because he'd begged and studied like a maniac just to get it. Other admittedly better cars came and went, but there was still nothing quite like his trusty Toyota. He felt for it the same emotions he felt for all the things he loved and treasured most. He wished he could summon the same emotions for Olive right there and then.

Before Charles could lean over to her side to open the door, she'd done it for him and jumped out as if her seat were a giant bug. A poisonous one.

Charles could only stare after her incredulously and fume silently as he drove away.

It had taken a full two weeks before they could speak normally to each other again. And even then, it wasn't the same anymore. Tempers still flared whenever the incident was brought up, and even if it wasn't, it somehow found a way to claw back out of the layers of forgetfulness both of them painstakingly tried to build. Caught between a rock and a hard place, as they liked to say.

Charles had known he'd have to do what he had to do sooner or later. Preferably sooner.

He had done it in their favorite café. Olive couldn't live without getting her daily latte from there, but their imminent breakup would probably have ruined the taste of it for her anyway. He hated to admit it, but he had been slightly nervous, so he'd ordered tea instead of coffee and sipped it while he waited for her.

"Hi!" a girlish, upbeat voice had said from the door; Olive had arrived. Her body bounced as she walked. She'd become unnaturally bubbly lately, ever since they'd "made up". Charles knew that she'd done it to save the relationship, and it had pained him to see her doing that, but he'd been through this before. He could see where this was going: a dead end.

"What is it you wanted to talk to me about?" Olive had said in her new tinkling voice as she settled herself in the plush armchair in front of Charles. She had still been wearing the bright smile she wore so often lately. All too soon, it wouldn't be there anymore. Charles had tried, with a deep exhale, not to be bothered by this fact.

"Get comfortable, love." Charles had tried to match Olive's airiness and failed miserably. "It'll be a pretty long story."

After Olive had gotten her usual latte, Charles immediately delivered his practiced speech. No point in fooling around. If he'd wasted time, he would only have screwed up.

"Look, Olive…" he'd started, and the rest of it just flowed in naturally, like a reflex. He'd broken up with a girl before, but considering Olive's volatile personality, this had been an especially difficult case. He'd gone over everything he needed to say whenever he could, because he knew that he would need all the preparation he could get.

Charles had been so engrossed in what he'd been doing that he'd grown completely oblivious to the things that had been going on around him. He hadn't noticed, for example, how Olive had had absolutely no time to interrupt and how, by the time he'd ended, her face had contorted unpleasantly.

"Charles, why?" Olive had protested loudly enough to elicit a few stares from the nearby baristas. He'd hoped she wouldn't react the way she usually did, but he couldn't expect that from her either.

"Olive, please, please, don't shout," Charles had cajoled as he smiled apologetically at the baristas who were looking at them suspiciously. "Hear me out, okay?"

"What do you mean 'hear you out'? What have I done wrong?" she had said pleadingly in a much lower, but still loud, voice. Questions, all of them demanding answers, had been written all over her face. But then, even Charles wasn't the right person to answer them.

"Olive, listen to me. You haven't done a single thing wrong. It's me who has the problem. I need space, and I can't get it while you're around." Charles knew it wasn't true even as he said it. He had meant to say something else, something more meaningful and truthful, something he'd practiced. But it was completely beyond him now, at the most opportune time.

Olive had made a guttural, hurt noise in response. "Don't give me any of that crap, Charles. Those excuses are stale. What's the real reason for all of this?"

"I've already told you everything."

"Pure BS, Charles. Pure BS." Hot tears had started to brim in Olive's surprised eyes.

"I wouldn't lie to you right now. I love you Olive, even if it's just as a friend now." Charles had looked up at her then, hoping that she'd see something in his eyes and understand.

"So that's it? You're just going to walk into my life and prance out like all the other guys I've met before?"

"Olive, I loved being in your life, but I have my reasons for getting out of it too. You have to see that there's a perfect guy for you out there, and it's not me."

"Fine. I guess there's no reasoning with you right now." Olive had been sulking. She would have sounded exactly like a child, Charles had reflected, if her voice had not contained so much venom. "But remember Charles, you're not leaving me." With that, she had stormed out of the café. She wiped her free-flowing tears from her cheeks as she went. She didn't even bother to take her latte with her.

Charles had exhaled deeply. Most of the people in the café had now been shooting him strange looks. Others, especially the girls and gays were whispering not very discreetly to each other. It had been hard not to mind them, so he stood up, took the still untouched latte, and left. He would give the latte to his boss. Might as well get something good out of the deal. Charles's dilemma had not ended prettily, but it was finally over, and that was all that mattered to him. His friends supported his decision and even took him to the club so that he could find a rebound girl, but it didn't do the trick. He needed a vacation and-he decided-he'd go on one as soon as he could file a leave. Two weeks in Boracay would probably do him good. He'd go alone, enjoy, the sun, sand, and surf, and maybe even flirt with a hot, tanned girl. The change would be welcome.

But for now, Charles's sandwich-Coke-TV method would have to do. The very next day, he reminded himself, he would file that leave.

As it turned out, there would be a change in Charles's plans.

The last things he ever felt were the thunk of cold metal against his head, the warmth of his own blood trickling down his left cheek, and the hardness of the linoleum floor.

And then nothing.

It was the most satisfying sound she'd ever heard.

She had never realized how wonderfully hard metal could be until she bashed the spade against the back of his thick skull. She admired the rich crimson spilling down from the gash she'd left on his head as it spread out in beautiful rosettes on his pristine white polo shirt like a macabre abstract painting. It looked even more beautiful against the green linoleum. She relished the warmth of his blood in her hands, its strong iron smell, and the way he'd groaned as she struck him with her spade.

It was a feast for the senses.

She would have liked to keep on admiring her handiwork, but there was no more time for that. She couldn't risk any nosy neighbors snooping around. Taking care not to get any blood on her black steel-toed boots, she sidestepped the stiff corpse and washed the spade in the faucet. She carefully scrubbed all the nooks and crannies with bleach and soap. She did the same to the floor, but with greater intensity. There was more blood there, and some of it had seeped into the tile grout. She cursed herself a little for it, but only a little. She could still get it out; all it took was a little more elbow grease. Then, she stuffed his body into her silver hard-shell suitcase. Hard-shell suitcases in neutral colors were her best friend. They were washable, sturdy, and perfectly nondescript. They also had a lot of room, which made them perfect for her purposes.

All this she did fastidiously but quickly, her movements carefully planned and speaking of experience and practice. She had always been praised for her efficiency at work. If they only knew how she used that talent when she wasn't mixing cocktails at the bar. She laughed softly at the thought.

Life was simple really, she reflected as she crammed the lanky man into her suitcase. You had two choices: do what you want or don't do what you want. She usually chose the former. A long time ago, she had believed that you couldn't help it when you didn't get what you want, but she knew better now.

She was nineteen when it happened, when she was finally released from her prison of martyrdom. And by her own father at that. She had been elated when she'd learned that she was finally going to meet him after fourteen long years of waiting for him in the care of her grandmother. Not that she wasn't happy with the old woman. She loved her more than anything, because she was the one who had taken over mother's place when she died in childbirth. Besides, she had never really known her mother. She just knew what she looked like from her grandmother's old photo albums and heard stories about her, and that was that. So even if she did feel a little tinge of jealousy whenever she saw people with their own mothers, she wasn't all that affected.

Her father, however, was a different story. She could talk all she wanted about her mother to her grandmother, and she would gladly listen and throw in all sorts of little details, like what dress her mother wore to prom what her favorite ice cream flavor was. But with her father, it was completely different. Whenever she tried to bring him up, her grandmother would immediately change the subject, and it would be like he had never been mentioned. Heck, it was like he didn't exist. Once, she'd tried to force information about him out of her grandmother by bombarding her with questions, and she'd just stared off blankly into space and ignored her. In fact, she had ignored her until dinnertime, when she promised never to talk about him again.

She never dared mention him again. Still, she remained interested in him, and so she did her own research. She thumbed through journals and suffered allergies over dusty photographs, all while hiding what she did from her grandmother, whose reaction she feared more than anything.

She may have been able to keep her secret for a long time-for three years, actually-but she couldn't hide it forever. One hot afternoon, when she thought she was alone in the house, her grandmother finally caught her reading a distant relative's letter from who knows when, which was surely about her father. She was very, very scared and, with her heart pounding like a gong in her chest, she walked over to her grandmother with her head bowed. She had been expecting a good yelling, but her grandmother just looked at her with her lips set and a strange look in her eyes, and shook her head slowly. Then she turned and walked away.

Later, as she was listening to music in her room, she heard her grandmother yelling "But she's your daughter!" to someone on the phone. The rest of the conversation was drowned out by AC/DC's lyrics.

A few days later, she was sent to live with the man who had practically been a stranger to her all her life: her father.

She didn't know what to feel then. Should she have felt apprehension, or fear, or doubt, or sadness, or happiness, or nervousness? One thing was for sure though. Even if it pained her to have to leave the woman who had played mother to her, happy was an understatement for what she felt about finally seeing her father. It was a fresh start. They would pick up where they left off, and finally, she wouldn't have to envy her friends who all had their own fathers.

She forgave him when he stood stiffly in her embrace the day she first met him. She forgave him when he ignored her being on the honor roll. She still forgave him when he "intentionally forgot" her birthday. She forgave him yet again when he burned her with his cigarette for walking home with a guy. It was hard, but she still believed that deep down inside, he loved her.

She just imagined that every punch he gave her was a hug, every kick a kiss. Every night, she was the one who cleared the dining table of the numerous bottles of beer he consumed. He had taken up nearly all of her patience. But when she learned that he had taken her in only because her grandmother had forced him to, that was the last straw. Over time, she had learned to ignore the rubbish that came out of his mouth when he was drunk, which was often. But then she heard him mention her grandmother, and all his inebriated slurs suddenly became crystal clear. She seethed quietly and struggled to hold on to the bottles of San Miguel she was clutching in her hands as he drunkenly told the story of how her grandmother had found out that she had Stage Four colon cancer and pleaded him to take her granddaughter in. She had paid him for it, with a little extra to make sure she never found out. Her grandmother had always been a dumb woman, he said, living in a fairy tale world and ignorant of the facts of life. He belched loudly and chuckled.

She didn't know which hurt worst: learning that her father never truly loved her, learning that her grandmother had lied to her, or listening to the way her father talked about her grandmother. What she did know was that she had had enough. She had spent too much time trying to make her father happy; it was her turn now.

She dropped the bottles, causing them to smash into a million tiny pieces at her feet, the way her spirit just had. She grabbed one of the longer shards of glass and thrust it into her father's rotund beer belly. She did not feel any sadness or remorse, just finality. She thought he would guide her through life just as other fathers did, but he was nothing but a hopeless case. She couldn't do anything about him anymore. If there was truly a merciful, loving God up there, he would never have let her suffer like this.

She locked the door behind her, vowing never to open it again. The world was a cruel place, but there was also beauty and goodness hidden in the cruelty. She had experienced this firsthand, and it just so happened that she'd been rubbing elbows with the bad side of the world lately. The only thing left for her to now was to go back to where the good side was, to where her grandmother was. All she had to her name were a few articles of clothing, a battered notebook and pen, a paperback copy of Wuthering Heights, her meager savings, and the dark blue hand-me-down suitcase that contained all these things. She literally had nothing to lose.

She remembered how determined and sure her stride had been on the walk to the house where she once lived. It was far, but the image of her grandmother, with her wise eyes and meek, loving smile, kept her going. She couldn't wait to get back to her. She didn't care if the old woman had only a few months to live. The only thing that mattered was that she would see her again.

She never did.

If the house was once filled with love, warmth, and the delicious aroma of her grandmother's cooking, it was hard to see that now. The jalousie windows were all shut forbiddingly tight against the night, and she wondered if there was even anyone home. She took a deep breath, stepped forward, and knocked. She knocked over and over again before she finally realized that she would have to open the door for herself. She still had a key to the house. She put it in and turned it slowly, walking carefully into the house. Each step she took sounded like it came from an amplifier. It was quiet. Much too quiet, she realized with a growing sense of alarm. Where on earth was her grandmother? Was this some sort of sick joke?

She looked everywhere. In her grandmother's room, in her old room, in the dining room, in the kitchen, even in the bathroom. Her grandmother was nowhere to be found. She rushed outside, hoping her grandmother had just gone out for a little while and was fumbling for her keys out in the yard, but she wasn't there too. She stood out there for a few minutes as she dripped her worried sweat on the bougainvillea until she got the nerve to ask a passing neighbor about her grandmother.

To this day, what the portly old man told her still brought her the greatest pain.

"You don't know? Oh dear, dear me. I'm sorry, so sorry. She…she died, you see. All alone, but it was peaceful, in her sleep. I'm sorry. If it makes you feel any better dear, she always said she loved you above everything."

Now she truly had nothing. Somehow, she would have to find her own way.

For so many years, she never let anyone else into her heart. Love was a weed; it only slowed her down. She was content with loving just her grandmother. Any more, and she would just be hurt all over again. She may have had a few friends, but they were transient and easily replaced. She'd done almost everything on her own. She had licked her own wounds, patted her own back, and pulled herself through college. She didn't need anyone else.

But then Mark came. Whenever she was with him, everything was brighter and fizzier. She tried to be careful; she had been burned before. But she let love win. He ran off and broke her heart, so she stabbed him in the back with his kitchen knife.

Soon, she found that she could not live without love. It was true what all those brainwashed optimists said after all. But there were those she loved and whom she thought loved her back. They had deceived her, and so they paid the price with their lives. It was only fair. They had dealt her a pain for which she would kill not to feel again.

And it happened once again with-she didn't even want to say his name anymore. She had loved him so much more than all the others. She had truly believed he wouldn't hurt her, but he did. She only did what she had to. But despite that, she still loved him. And with her resourcefulness, she found a way to keep him.

Later, back in the privacy of her apartment, she tightened the ropes she had bound him with again. She couldn't risk any loose limbs giving her away. She pushed him way back into the broom closet, among the bottles of detergent and bleach. Then she went in, bent until her mouth was level with his cold, dead ear, and whispered to him.

"I told you, Charles. I warned you. I kept my promise. You're not leaving me."