Inkbound, Chapters 4–6

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4.

After breakfast, Giles and Norbing returned to their rooms to pack. Giles showered and changed. He glanced at the notebook once more, feeling the creature’s half-presence just beyond its surface, then placed it firmly in his left pants pocket.

They met downstairs at almost a quarter past twelve. Norbing hailed a taxi, and before long they were once more headed for the airport. Giles watched buildings streak past the windows, one after the other. He was surprised by how many American companies were represented. There was Burger King, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, even 7/11. On the surface, the Philippines appeared in some ways like an extension of the West, yet it seemed this very infusion of Western influence was a critical part of what made the country unique.

Norbing turned his signature smile on Giles, and this time Giles tried his best to return the gesture.
“How you like Manila?”

“It’s interesting.”

“You like Bacolod,” said Norbing, clasping his hands together. “Not as big as Manila, but good food. You try chicken inasal!”

“I will.” But Giles found it difficult to think about food.

“You be fine,” said Norbing, reading him like a book. “You care about job. You want to do well, so you will.”

Giles didn’t reply. His Library had said much the same, that he was young, that he meant well, that he would learn from his mistakes and shouldn’t be too hard on himself. But Giles couldn’t shake the feeling that he was about to screw up again, that the rest of his career would be one long parade of fuck-ups.

You fucked up, Giles, he heard the voice from his dream say, you fucked up good.

“Be confident,” Norbing warned. “It sense you. It know when you afraid and make you more afraid. Need to believe you can win, need to fight fear.”

Giles thought of his dream once more and wondered if the creature in the notebook had been responsible. “I’ll try.”

“You no try,” said Norbing, “You do.”

Giles settled into the backseat, trying not to let the heat get the best of him. The word aircon had been painted on the outside of the car, but when they’d gotten in, the driver had told them the A/C was broken.

Even with so many American companies present, Giles felt keenly the distance between the Philippines and California. Manila was different enough to unsettle him and similar enough to make him homesick.

One difference Giles found particularly jarring was the ubiquity of poverty on this side of the world. He’d seen plenty of homeless people back in California, especially in Los Angeles, sprawled out on park benches or standing on street corners with signs promising work in exchange for food. But here it was so much worse. There were entire families living beneath bridges and huddled up against buildings, entire streets lined with people Norbing called squatters, all living in flimsy, dilapidated shanty houses that seemed like they might collapse at any moment. Many of these squatter homes had been raised beside expensive condos and restaurants. Most heartbreaking were the children, who approached stopped cars at every red light in soiled rags, begging for coins. Giles couldn’t imagine growing up under such squalid conditions.

Outside, cars and motorcycles wove in and out of lanes in time to the irregular staccato beat of honking horns, while pedestrians thought nothing of crossing in the middle of heavy traffic as if the street were just a busy sidewalk. Giles had thought California was bad, but Manila was in a class all its own. A strange gaudily ornamented vehicle that looked like the lovechild of a bus and a jeep swerved in front of them, belching out a plume of acrid black smoke. The taxi driver slammed on his brakes, muttering something that sounded to Giles like “Hi nakoo”, and he and Norbing exchanged words in Tagalog.

“What’s that?” asked Giles.

“Jeepney,” said Norbing.

Giles kept a hand pressed to the notebook in his pocket and did his best to remain calm.

He could feel the partially bound creature inside, and for the first time he wondered if that awareness went both ways. Could it read him? Was it trying to make him more unsure, trying to make him fail? Their modus operandi, the reason these creatures were so dangerous and needed to be locked away, was that they fed on positive emotions and left fear, anger and despair in their wake. They were like vampires, consuming humanity’s emotional lifeblood, and people often died by their hand. Once, long ago, in a universe much like Earth’s, they’d consumed almost everything, had nearly brought the fabric of existence to its knees. The Immortals (not Earthbound, not yet) had thwarted them, imprisoned them someplace where they hoped they would never bother anyone again. But a number of them had escaped and fled, taking on physical form in order to evade detection.

That was the reason people like Giles existed, to hunt them down, to imprison them so they could never again wreak the kind of havoc that had once destroyed almost everything. Giles supposed there must also be Immortals bound to non-human forms on other worlds and in other universes, but he knew nothing about that, not in his current limited form.

“We here,” said Norbing as the car pulled up toward the curb.

Giles started, surprised. At some point he’d zoned out and hadn’t realized where he was.

Norbing handed the taxi driver two hundred fifty pesos, grumbling that the fare shouldn’t have been more than a hundred twenty-five, then wound around to the trunk and grabbed Giles’s luggage.

“It’s okay,” said Giles, “I can get that.”

But Norbing only smiled. “I get it. I not that old yet.”

NAIA 3 was much smaller than the international terminal where he’d deplaned after arriving from the States. All of its gates fit into a room about half the size of a football field. They checked in at the Cebu Pacific counter, passed through security and sat beside their gate. Twenty minutes later, a voice blared from an overhead speaker in both English and Tagalog, alerting waiting passengers that Cebu Pacific flight 5J 481 bound for Bacolod was now boarding.

“You like Bacolod,” said Norbing again as they handed their boarding passes to a woman in a bright yellow uniform.

Giles patted the notebook in his pocket for comfort and followed Norbing up the ramp.

5.

Giles leaned back in his seat, allowed himself to be consumed by the heavy thrum of the jet engine. Once, about fifteen minutes into the flight, a stewardess passed by with a cart offering drinks and snacks. When she came to his row he politely declined, then settled back and closed his eyes.

He began to doze, and the airplane seat beneath him transformed into the easy chair he’d been sitting on when Dad had hugged him for the last time. He’d said in his British accent that he was going on a trip, but promised to be back soon. Giles waited seven months before giving up on his return. What did I do wrong? It was a question that would occur to him many times. By then, he’d withdrawn into himself completely and the teasing at school had intensified, so that all he wanted to do was stay in bed and let the day pass over him like a drifting cloud.

And then Giles was up in the air once more, not in an airplane but flying, soaring through the sky, where he at last felt free. There was another world out there, his true home. He only had to reach out and seize it.

And then he was accepting a leather notebook from one of his colleagues at the Library. They’d taken him under their wing, explained who and what he was, had finally given him purpose at a time in his life when he had very nearly driven himself mad. The notebook was as much a savior as it was a gift, and that night he held it close to his breast like a lover, not knowing the weight, the burden it would represent when he finally began to use it.

And then Giles was once more watching the man, sitting at the bus stop, and again Giles watched himself fail, watched the man flee. A voice drifted up to him through the layers of his mind, a sneering contemptuous sound.

You fucked up, Giles. You fucked up good.

And then there was a crash, a clatter, and Giles snapped awake.

Inside his pocket, the notebook had grown warm. A panicky thought occurred to him.

I can’t do this. I’ll fuck up again.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a woman over the intercom, “We’re experiencing turbulence and ask that you please remain seated with your seat belts fastened. Thank you.”

Giles looked around. Norbing was still next to him, fast asleep. He gazed out the window, occasionally placing his hand in his pocket to check on the notebook. Would he fuck up? Giles knew how to complete the binding so it would never bother anyone again, but he was still afraid. He should have gotten it right the first time. The fact that he was here at all made him question whether or not he would be able to fix it the second time around.

When they finally landed, he sighed and tapped Norbing on the shoulder.

“We’re here.”

They waited for the door to open, then headed outside into the heat.

6.

They arrived in Bacolod a little past 4:00, and by 4:45 they were pulling up in a white taxi to a small house in a tiny barangay on Burgos Ave. Norbing paid the driver, grabbed Giles’s bag and got out to open a large wrought iron gate.

“This my home,” said Norbing. “You stay and rest, then tomorrow you fix mistake.”

Giles wasn’t sure if it was better to wait, or if he should get it over with now, so he deferred to his host.

Giles thought he’d gotten a good taste of the Philippines in Manila, but Bacolod turned out to be very different. On the way to Norbing’s house from the Silay airport, they’d passed kilometer after kilometer of sugarcane fields, a few of them on fire. The bright orange flames and thick gray smoke frightened him, until Norbing explained that they were controlled fires and that it was the way the farmers cleared their fields for the next crop. Where downtown Manila was crammed to capacity with high rise towers and reminded Giles a little of Los Angeles, Bacolod was smaller and dominated primarily by strip malls and single story buildings. If Manila had felt like another country, Bacolod felt, in some ways, like another world.

“We have lunch now,” said Norbing. “There lechon in fridge.”

There were only three rooms on the inside, a combined living room and kitchen, a bathroom and a bedroom, and there was no central air conditioning, something Giles would have considered a necessity back in the States. Outside, the house was surrounded by a tall hollow concrete block fence with shards of broken glass stuck into the top.

“Sorry,” said Norbing, “Lechon from yesterday morning, not so good.”

“It’s okay.”

“Tomorrow, we have breakfast at resto. I treat you.”

Giles was touched by the man’s generosity. They hadn’t known each other until last night, yet Norbing had opened his home to him without a second thought. Giles had once heard that Filipinos were known for their hospitality. Norbing was proof that it was true.

“Thank you,” said Giles.

“For what?”

“Everything. For picking me up, for booking my hotel, for taking me into your home.”

Norbing gave him an easygoing smile. “It nothing,” he said. “My Library in Bacolod, they pay for everything.” He winked, and Giles grinned.

“Then please, also tell them I said thank you.”

They sat at a small table with two glasses of cold water, a half cup of rice each and day-old lechon wrapped in tin foil. Norbing said that when it was fresh, the pig’s skin was crunchy, that the meat was more tender and juicy, but Giles was easily pleased. He’d never had pork like this back in the States.

“It’s really good,” said Giles.

“Cebu have best lechon. You come back sometime and try.”

When they were finished eating, they sat in comfortable silence, while outside jeepneys and tricycles honked and sputtered along the road.

“Do you still work?” asked Giles after a while, breaking the silence.

“Oo, but I retiring soon. I work long time. Want rest.”

“What will you do then?”

“I draw,” said Norbing, smiling. “No binding, just drawing. Want to make art, like my father no let me do.”

Giles glanced about the room. It was a simple homey space, and he imagined Norbing must have all he needed right here. He noticed a series of photos on the wall, many with what looked like a younger version of Norbing standing or sitting beside a woman.

“Did you marry?” It wasn’t common, not for the Earthbound, but occasionally it happened.

“Oo,” said Norbing. “But she die nine years ago. Now I live alone.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It okay,” said Norbing. “She at peace now. We in love, but we also fight. She no understand me, and I keep many secret.”

Giles could see how having to hide a fundamental aspect of your nature would put a strain on a marriage. It wasn’t just the fact that they had to go out into the world and capture dangerous supernatural beings that other humans didn’t know existed. It was that their humanity was only a part of who and what they were.

It was like the human world existed in only two dimensions, and while most were unaware that there was a third dimension and were content to live on a flat Earth, the Earthbound knew there was more yet were bound to the same two dimensional space as everyone else. The dark shadow cast over their lives by that hidden third dimension was a haunting reminder of all they’d given up to keep the universe safe, and even the most dedicated among them were possessed by the perennial need for solitude and silent reflection of mysteries that would be frustratingly out of reach for the entirety of their Earthly lives. It was the reason why Giles couldn’t see himself in a similar arrangement.

“It’s hard relating to people,” said Giles. “I’ve never been in a relationship myself. I’ve always had trouble just making friends.” He recalled the inner turmoil he’d started to experience in elementary school and which had reached a crisis by high school, the human half of his nature expressing its biological desire for companionship while the Immortal half of his nature pushed it away.

“It hard,” said Norbing. “You want love, but you also want to be alone. I spend many hours alone, and wife always complain. Say I no love her, say I selfish, that all I want is draw. I try so hard to show her I love her, but it never enough. But we happy too.” Norbing smiled, and once more his face took on a far away look.

“She take care of Ms. Mylene before she die. Her name Anna. She nurse. She so nice, she care for Ms. Mylene. I fall in love with her and ask her marry.” Norbing smiled. “Maybe someday you too find love.”

“Maybe,” but Giles doubted it very much.

“Did you have any children?” Among the pictures, Giles had spotted an infant.

And then Norbing hung his head slightly, and his smile faded. “Oo, one. But she sick and die when only baby. Wife no want more.”

The sadness behind the man’s eyes tugged at Giles’s heartstrings. “I’m sorry.”

“It long time ago,” said Norbing. “Sometimes I wonder what she like if older, what life be like if she alive. But maybe she no like me, maybe sometimes she feel I no love her like mother. I don’t know.”

“I’m sure she would’ve loved you very much,” said Giles. “You’re kind and generous. Any child would be lucky to have you for a father.”

“Thank you,” said Norbing, and the smile rebounded.

After a while, Norbing got up from the table. “I take nap. You rest too. Need strength. You take bedroom.”

Norbing headed for the couch and Giles tried to stop him.

“I can take the couch,” said Giles. “It’s your house.”

“And you guest,” said Norbing. “You take bed. Couch is fine, very comfortable.” He pushed down on the mattress with his right hand as if to demonstrate.

Giles protested further, but Norbing wasn’t having any of it. Finally Giles conceded, thanked him and headed for the room.

“Air conditioner in window,” called Norbing over Giles’s shoulder. “Make sure to close door.”

So, there was an air conditioner after all. He cranked the dial to seven and sighed contentedly as a gust of cold air whooshed around his head and shoulders. He located the bed, a small single mattress with dark brown sheets and a single pillow, and plopped down on top of it.

As he lay on his back, he began to think, about the job he would have to do tomorrow, about whether or not he was up for the task, about his life back home, about how much he missed Mom. His heart ached for Norbing, who’s life was mired in so much anguish. Giles was glad the man had found happiness in spite of it.

He reached into his pocket, pulled out the notebook—the creature partially contained within was almost quivering now—and held it before the dim light of the curtained window.

He wondered if he’d volunteered for this before he was born, or if his fate had been chosen for him. He certainly couldn’t remember asking for any of this. His job came with so much responsibility, sacrifice and pain. Though their work remained unrecognized by most, Giles and his kind carried the weight of the world on their shoulders. Its continued existence hinged almost entirely on their efforts to bind the preternatural terrors that, if left to their own devices, would consume everything. Yet he couldn’t say it was a bad life, because what Norbing had said was true: he’d discovered his reason for being and was living it. Things might be hard, but he led a purpose driven life and was working toward the common good of all, something that fulfilled him in a way nothing else could have.

Life was bizarre, he thought. Some believed that if they could only know the mind of God, they would finally be able to make sense of everything. But Giles thought that being part Immortal only confused matters further.

He lay like that for an hour, perhaps two, watching as the sun transformed first from white to gold, then to orange and red. Eventually, his eyelids drooped and awareness faded, sputtered, expired.

Beside him on the mattress, the notebook waited.

The first 9 chapters of this novella are available online for free.

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