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January 4, 2013

Guardians Among Us

In this captivating story by Liezel Pichay, we see how redemption can also be present in grief. This story is a great read for starting the new year. Don't let the word "painfully" in the title keep you from reading this uplifting story! The beautiful ending will reveal why the title is so perfect.

No evening passersby would be able to recognize that something odd was happening inside the old clinic. Venetian blinds covered the whole glass window, the door was locked, and a “Closed” sign hung on the doorknob. The clinic’s walls were so thick that there was no chance of someone hearing shouts from someone wanting to escape.

The first events happened so fast. Emily, the physician's secretary, was getting ready to go home when someone knocked on the door. Both Emily and Dr. López, the middle-aged man who owned this clinic, doubted that it was a latecomer patient. It was almost seven in the evening— they had worked two hours overtime already and were about to leave. Dr. López looked at Emily. She was hesitant to open the door, so he did. A tall man in a leather jacket stood behind the door.

“Oh, it's you, Lionel!” the physician exclaimed. Lionel rushed in, locked the door behind him, dropped his knapsack near his feet, pushed the physician onto his knees on the tiled floor, cuffed the latter's hands behind his back, and brought out a .35 caliber handgun. Everything happened in a flash.

“Don't move,” Lionel threatened Emily, pointing the gun at her then onto Dr. López's head.
“What is this, Lionel?” the physician shouted, pushed down farther, facing the floor.
In answer Lionel stuffed the physician's mouth with his handkerchief. He grabbed Dr. López and pulled him up to sit on the chair in front of Emily's table.

“You!” he motioned to Emily. “Get the rope in my bag.” She did as he told her. “Tie him to the chair!” She followed his order with a shudder.

With Lionel's gun still raised on them, Emily tied  Dr. López to the chair. Then Lionel turned on the table lamp before he switched off the ceiling lights.

“Tie him tight!” he snapped at her.
From his waist he took out a second handgun of the same caliber. When she was done, Lionel stretched his left hand toward Emily, offering her the second gun.

“Kill him,” he ordered her. The words were like thunder in her ears.
“I—can't.” Emily shook her head.
“I said, kill that man!” He nudged her head with the tip of his gun. “Or I'll kill you.”
Emily’s hands trembled as she reluctantly took hold of the brandished gun. She glanced at Dr. López and felt guilty for letting nerves force her into being an accomplice and tying the doctor to the chair, but she wasn’t going to be an accomplice to more than that.

“Shoot him or I'll shoot you!”
“I... c-can't...” The throbbing in her chest echoed in her head; it felt deafening. She was so nervous and confused about the motive behind this. “Please, spare our lives,” she said.

“I'll spare your life. All you have to do is point your gun at him, then shoot.” Lionel studied her face for a moment. The room was dim, but the lamplight revealed her expressive doe-like eyes. “Don't beg for his life, he doesn't deserve it. He killed my wife!” Killed his wife? Then Emily remembered what Dr. López had mentioned to her earlier, something about a hospital patient who had just died.

“No, he didn't!” Emily yelled back. This surprised the perpetrator, but she was more surprised with her reaction. She bit her thin lips and swallowed the lump in her throat before she continued. “D-dengue fever k-killed your wife.” Her speech was almost a whisper.

Lionel laughed mockingly at her. “He's a doctor, isn't he?” He turned to Dr. López. “You're a doctor, man, but you let my wife die!”

Dr. López shook his head. “No?” Lionel frowned. “You neglected her. You're a killer!”  He turned to Emily. “Now, kill or die?”

Emily closed her eyes, took a deep breath. She looked at Lionel and strove to keep her voice from quivering as she began: “When you gave me this gun, you gave me a chance to kill you, too, but I didn't try because I'm not going to kill!”

Lionel smirked. “You’ll die, then.” He took the gun from her hand as he pointed the other gun at her forehead.

You want to kill me?” She fought back a shiver. “Go on! After I die, I won’t feel the pain, anyway. Unlike you, your pain will remain deep inside of you. It’ll wound and kill your soul!”

Lionel paused, trying to absorb everything she said.
“What pain?” he asked, moving the gun away from her forehead. “I just lost my beloved wife. You know how that feels?” He paused briefly. “That deeply wounded my soul already! I feel like the living dead, so, what pain are you talking about? Is there greater pain than this? Is there something more painful than losing a loved one?” He waited for her response.

Emily struggled, thinking, combing her mind. The answer was not within her grasp at the moment.

“How stupid am I to ask?” he said, patting his own forehead with the back of his fist. “Say goodbye to your doctor, Miss Clever.” Lionel stepped closer to Dr. López. “But don't worry, you'll be next,” he told her.

The helpless physician shook his head. His eyes widened in terror as Lionel poised to pull the trigger.

“Please don't shoot!” Emily begged. “It's true... it is painful to lose someone you love. I know how it feels! But there is greater pain than that. Do you know what it is?”

Lionel faced Emily. “Why are you trying to stop me? You'll still die! If  not now, later for sure.”
“You're ruining your life, you know that?”
“So what? Who cares!”
“You're ruining your life!” she repeated. “And everybody will know the reason behind this is your beloved wife. Don't you see? Everyone will blame her for your mistake. You will ruin not only your life, but also the memory of her. Isn't that more painful than losing her?”

There was a moment of silence.
“If she could see you now...” it was Emily who broke it, “...she would be hurt.”
Lionel took a deep breath. He nodded several times in slow motion. He laughed—a laugh full of bitterness—and then, suddenly, cried. In a moment, his grief flooded the room.

Nobody said anything for a while.... Then, Lionel wiped away his tears with his forearm. “I’ll... leave...,” he said. “You’ll call police?” 

Emily shook her head. Lionel ignored it.
“I don't care anymore! Call them!” Then, the potential consequence of his mistake came into his vision. Emily’s words echoed in his mind: “You will ruin not only your life but also her memories. Isn't it more painful than losing her?” Punishment would be waiting for him for a crime committed in his wife’s name, and it would drag his beloved’s name into shame.

“No.” His knees felt so weak. “I—don't want to ruin her memory. I love her too much.” He fell to his knees on the floor. "That would be so unfair for her. What have I done? It's too late, isn’t it?” Lionel asked, looking up straight into Emily's eyes as if he were begging for help. “I can't escape from this—“

“You can escape now,” Emily interrupted him. “You can leave and move on."
Lionel's squinty, dark brown eyes turned fierce again. “You just want to trick me, Miss Clever. Once I leave, you'll phone the police, I know!”

“No, I won't.” She moved close to the phone's cable and pulled it out of the wall. “See? I can't call anybody now.”

“Liar, you have a cell phone!”
“I'm not lying. You let us live; we'll let you escape. Now, go!”
“And the doctor? He’ll fire you and let the authorities hunt me!”
“He won't fire me, I'm saving his life. As for you...,” she met his eyes, “...believe me, he also cried for your wife. He's a kind doctor who has sympathy for his patients. I know him. He understands you... trust me.”

“And why should I trust you?”
Emily released a deep sigh before she answered, “Because this is the only way to make this right.”

Emily and Lionel stared at each other, each remaining still as the silence passed between them.
Lionel made the first move. He packed his two guns inside his knapsack, then walked to Dr. López and untied him.

“I—I'm so sorry...,” he said softly to the doctor before he reached for the door. “Miss Clever,” he addressed Emily, “I'm gambling my life on your words. But I won’t blame you if you change your mind and call for help.” Lionel turned his back to them and stepped out the door.

He walked away slowly, stopped, looked around. The cold street remained quiet—no sign of policemen approaching. He waited for a minute before he continued walking. The lady he called Miss Clever filled his thoughts now. “She holds on to her words,” he whispered to himself. He felt a sudden concern for her. Is the doctor going to fire her? Will she be okay?

Later on, he smiled. Miss Clever will be all right. She's brave enough to handle her own problems. But if not, I'll be there... I will be more than willing to help her and return the favor with all I can.
Months passed. He didn't know if it was a form of obsession, but from that day on, Lionel lived with a promise to return his thanks to Emily. Day after day, he watched her every move. It was easy for him, because before he built his small coffee shop, he had worked as a private investigator. He was used to keeping an eye on someone for money. Now, he was keeping an eye on someone for one good reason: he wanted to be there just in time just in case Emily needed his help.

One afternoon, he thought that Emily wouldn't leave her house because it was a holiday, but she did. He almost didn't recognize her; she was not in her usual skirt-and-blouse attire. She looked younger in her simple black shirt and jeans, he observed. Lionel followed her as she walked from her home to the main road, until she reached the foot of the highway bridge. But Emily didn't stop there; she crossed the highway bridge. Lionel continued tailing her, keeping his distance to make sure she wouldn't notice him. Ten minutes after crossing the bridge, Emily stopped. She removed her sandals and stepped on the railing of the bridge. Lionel ran quickly toward her.

“Please, no!” he yelled when he was just a few steps from her. She stopped and slowly turned around.

“Y-you?” She frowned as she recognized him.
Her position on the railing made him feel nervous. “Y-yes, it's me. You remember me?”
“Stay away!” she shouted, her hands waving in the air.
Lionel feared that she might lose her balance. He moved a step closer.
“I said, stay away!” she repeated.
“Okay,” Lionel answered and stopped walking forward. “Please calm down. And please don't—”
“It's none of your business!”
“What the hell are you saying?” He made himself sound irritated and acted mad. “I make an effort just to follow you all the way here, walking nearly half an hour, and then you tell me it's none of my business?”

“Y-you followed me?” she asked, bewildered.
“Yes,he answered casually.
Slowly, carefully he stepped closer to the railing. “Before I answer that question, please let me formally introduce myself.” Then he sat on the rail, close to her bare feet. “My name is Lionel and... you're Emily, right?” He extended his right hand for a handshake, which she avoided by stepping sideways away from him. Her feet slipped from the rail; she fell off the bridge! Lionel moved with lightning speed. By the time her scream created an echo, he held her tightly by one arm. Lionel was panting. He had never felt so nervous and afraid in the past thirty years as he did now! He felt exhausted, sweating inside his denim jacket.

“You really want to end your life like this?” he shouted. Now he really was mad. Emily was still hanging near the railing with the help of his strong grip. "Shall I let you fall?"

Of course, he wasn’t serious; but he wanted her to realize how wrong her suicidal attempt was. She didn't answer. Shock was painted all over her face. Lionel pulled her up. As her feet safely touched the asphalt deck of the bridge, she gasped and begin to cry.

“Emily,” he calmed his voice this time, for he felt her shivering body, “you survived my dangerous foolishness before. How could you try to waste your 'second life' like this?”

Emily sat on the ground, sobbing. Her knees bent close to her chest, her hands covered her face. Lionel sat beside her. He lifted his hand to touch her long, wavy, black hair to console her, but he hesitated. He chose to let her weep, undisturbed. Seeing her so vulnerable made him recall the information he gathered about her...

Emily lived alone in a small, old bungalow she inherited from her parents. When she was fifteen, the factory where her parents worked collapsed from an earthquake. It killed them. Losing one love was truly hard to accept, but Emily had lost the two most beloved people in her life at the same time. Lionel couldn't imagine how she endured that pain alone for ten years! Perhaps her loneliness didn't really last for a total of ten years because she had found a family in her fiancé. Then, quite recently, a car accident stole that newfound love from her life.

When Emily’s tears subsided, Lionel started to talk again. “What happened to Miss Clever?” He got no reaction. “What happened to that brave lady who saved me from being insane? Please, don't let her be blinded by pain.”

Something in what he said snapped at her consciousness. She looked at Lionel, straight into his eyes. He felt an urge to embrace and comfort her. The pain he saw deep in her eyes was the same pain he used to have—or rather, was still recovering from.

Emily sighed before she started to speak. “I... lost him.” Her voice sounded so frail. “H-he died because I'm cursed to be alone. He died because of me!” Tears ran down her face.

“No, it's not true.” Lionel shook his head. “There's no such cursed life or fate, so don't blame yourself.” He paused to see her reaction. Her expression had not changed, but he knew she was listening. “Your fiancé died because of that accident,” Lionel continued. “It's out of your control.”

Emily never expected to hear this. She looked at him and asked, “How did you—”
“How did I know what happened to your fiancé?” he completed her question. She didn't react. She just stared at him, waiting for his answer. “Because after our first encounter I never failed to watch you from afar,” he confessed.

Emily looked at him with intense curiosity.

“After that awful incident, I promised myself I must be here if you need help. I hope this way, I can show you how grateful I am—that you saved me.” Lionel stood facing Emily. “Trust me.He offered his hands downward to her. She remained motionless, staring still at his open hands. “Trust me,” he repeated, “as I trusted you.”

Hearing “trust” a second time, Emily's eyes moved slowly upward from Lionel's palms to his face. For the first time, she saw him smile. It was a beautiful smile, shining bright against the view of the sunset, which she could see behind him. After a few seconds of hesitation, Emily placed her own hands on top of his. Hand in hand, he helped her stand face to face with him.
Their eyes locked.

“Please accept my gratitude, Emily. Give me a chance to help you ease that pain. Let me comfort you....” Lionel hugged her. It was not an ordinary hug; to Emily it was a soothing embrace and it nourished her almost broken soul.

Deep inside, Lionel made another promise. It was a promise that Emily would never be alone again.

Copyright, Liezel Pichay, all rights reserved.
Photo by Lena Sergeeva, iStock

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