Once They Were Gods
by Eliza Victoria
Alex woke up early on the morning of the sixth year since the world ended, and he woke up trying to think of the word for joy. He could not remember it. That feeling, he thought, sitting up abruptly, as though the word were an insect he could catch if he was fast enough. It was still dark, but the day was fast approaching, creeping past the thin curtains to settle on the floor. Joy. That feeling. For the meantime he tried naming the things entering his room—sunlight, wind, and, if he moved slightly to the left—there, reflected on the mirror on his study desk, sky.
Computer. Printer. Closet. Aircon. Photographs. Rubber shoes. Fluorescent.
Fluorescent. They had their own name for that last one, Alex remembered. Not-sun, they called it, or fake-light. Back then, they had been able to create fake-light, make a stone cast light if they wished, a leaf, the branches of a tree, an entire lake. Here, however, other objects were created to generate fake-light. (Why use a vessel? Why not generate the light directly? Luisa had demanded an answer from him, clutching a twig, a pebble, crying when the darkness remained, crying when she failed. Luisa had said, this is an awful place.)
Slippers, Alex thought, forcing himself to focus. Towel. Lamp. Thesaurus. The sunshine now was a luminous patchwork on the skin of his arms, pressing past the designs of the curtains, spilling across his bedcovers. Somewhere in the house he could hear James turning on the television, opening doors. Alex was convinced that the word was somewhere in his belly, inside of him, that if he tried hard enough he could wrench the word out of his mouth.
Joy. That feeling. He could always use “joy.” but it was not their word, it didn’t sit right on his tongue. That feeling. He couldn’t name it. Stripped of its name he could no longer feel it, couldn’t summon it, couldn’t make it enter his room, along with sunlight, wind, sky. Regret he remembered, the word for it coming to him effortlessly, like a kind bird, an injured bird finding its home inside his hands. It was this that entered his room that morning, six years after everybody died—regret, and the smell of breakfast.
James was not in the dining room. The kitchen was still warm from the heat of the stove, and the small table was already set for two people (as recently as last year, James sometimes still made the mistake of taking out three plates, preparing three cups of coffee), the eggs and the rice uncovered, but James wasn’t there, either. The television was still on in the empty living room. Alex didn’t make a move to turn it off, and instead walked back upstairs, knowing exactly where James was. To the door to his left at the top of the staircase was Luisa’s room. James was sitting on her computer chair (Alex couldn’t remember what happened to the computer; there was only now the chair and the beige table, the table bare), his back resting fully on the backrest, his legs stretched on the floor and crossed at the ankles. He was staring out the window.
Alex entered the room and sat on the edge of the bed. James glanced at him.
“I made breakfast,” James said.
Alex nodded. “Don’t you have class today?”
“I gave them a reading break.”
“So you’re not going to the University.”
“No,” James said. “But I could drive you.”
“That’s all right. I’d rather walk.”
James studied him for a moment, then nodded. “Somebody named Celine called this morning,” he said. “The girl’s looking for you.” James was teasing him, but Alex wouldn’t meet his gaze. “You should eat breakfast,” James said, giving up.
Alex did not love him. He had decided on this before end-light, on the day his father died, and on the day Luisa died. Six years ago had come that final burst of brilliance, then the void, then the feel of the words as they were pushed out of him, as he slammed into the body of an eleven-year-old boy he came to know as Alex. Luisa was ten, and James was their father. They were simply thrown together into a single family with bodies and memories and lives that became available after being thoroughly poisoned—but there was no love there, no love involved in the arrangement. Even in the lives of the true Alex and Luisa and James, with their violent end, there had been no love.
“Celine’s the girl in school whose brother committed suicide,” Alex said. It was a small town; both of them knew when Celine’s brother died. Alex could almost hear James think automatically of Luisa.
Alex asked: “Do you remember her name?”
Even the sound of their language did not jolt James from his seat. His legs remained crossed, his back flat against the backrest.
“Luisa,” James replied to the windows.
“Her real name,” Alex said.
Seconds ticked by. “No,” James said, finally, looking lost. Even Alex, who did not love him, felt his throat constrict at the expression on his face.
Well, do you remember my name? Do you remember yours? Alex thought of the questions, but suddenly did not have the heart to ask them.
“Alexander!” Amalia shouted from her marble porch, her bifocals shining in the sunlight, her other hand gesturing, gesturing, gesturing. “Come, come.”
Alex stopped in his tracks and turned. Amalia seemed to be in a good mood. Amalia always seemed to be in a good mood, completely different from her previous incarnation as the last Truth-teller before end-light. Alex only knew one Truth-teller before the end came, her, so he couldn’t tell if all Truth-tellers were like her: stern and wordless. Frightening, like a boulder stirring atop a precipice. Sometimes, in her presence, the best lighters of the field couldn’t create light through the tiniest speck, let alone a rock on the path she happened to be traversing. It was the best greeting one could give, lighting someone else’s path, but apparently it was a show of respect one couldn’t give to the Truth-teller without losing focus first. Alex became the victim of this, that one night he saw her on the walkway, and she shamed him with a glance. He threw away the rock he was trying to illuminate and vowed that he would never greet her in any way again. Her and her lofty title. She couldn’t even tell the truth! They called her Truth-teller, but Truth-tellers were lighters simply born with the ability to accurately tell if someone was lying. The only truth they managed to discern through elimination, intuition, sheer luck. Truth-teller. “Truth-teller, my ass,” Alex said out loud, in front of Amalia’s gate.
The Truth-teller was in her youth when end-light came around. She landed into the darkened room of a dying old lady called Amalia. The Truth-teller said that she was about to leave (“You had full control of yourself even then?” Alex had said when she first told him this, incredulous) when Amalia (“A very agreeable woman,” the Truth-teller described her) lifted a finger from the depths of the bed covers and said, “Well, just give me a moment.” The Truth-teller said she waited until Amalia was ready to leave.
“Leave?” Alex had echoed. “You saw her leave? How was that possible?”
“Well,” Amalia said, trying to find the words. “She didn’t die, I suppose.”
“But you had her body. Of course she died.”
“You’re telling me,” Alex said, “you’re saying they survive.”
“It was the most glorious thing to witness, her leaving,” Amalia said, focused on her mending. “She was a very agreeable woman, Amalia.”
“Maybe we will also survive.”
Amalia looked at him then. “I don’t believe that’s the case.”
“They decay,” Alex said. “They couldn’t even produce light through the skin of their hands.”
“Sometimes they do things that make you forget they decay.”
“What will happen to us, then?” Alex asked, unaware that he had shifted to their own language in his despair. “After?” What he wanted to say was, What happened to everybody else?
“We disappear,” said Amalia, sounding and looking as if she were only saying, I believe I’ve run out of white thread. “We glimmer, and then wink out. Like the light.”
Alex sighed and walked through the tiny opening in her enormous ornate gates, walked past her rose garden, walked across the driveway. “I’m running late, Amalia,” he said as he approached her.
“Oh, this won’t take long,” Amalia said. “Come.”
Amalia’s house was all bronze and wood and marble, everything gleaming, except that Alex could hardly see anything because her windows were covered with heavy curtains. Amalia said that during the first few days in her new body, she opened all the windows, allowing the sunlight to enter, but the light blazed and burned every surface. She couldn’t understand it, the intense heat. Alex once told her that she could pull back her curtains in the early morning—the light didn’t burn then—but she said she was not going to take any chances.
Amalia’s house had an attic, and a tiny elevator that could take them there, so they rode this, a tin metal box that Alex hated. They stepped out.
The attic’s wooden floor had been covered with stones—white, gray, black—a circle of flat stones they could walk on. In the center of this circle was a huge rock, with contours for a seat. Surrounding all these were small trees with twisted trunks and leafless branches. Upon these branches hung strings, the Christmas lights that looked so much like stars. The attic was the size of a classroom, and the dots of white light in the trees’ branches were the only glow. Besides them Alex could only make out the white stones, the shapes of the leafless trees, the whites in Amalia’s eyes. In here, Alex could easily forget it was morning.
“It’s been six years,” Amalia said. Alex knew that was the reason.
“It’s lovely,” he said. Feebly he wondered what the men Amalia had hired and paid to carry the trees and the stones thought of her.
“Oh, I’m glad!” Amalia said. She made her way to the center of the circle and sat on the rock. On it was a remote control—Alex rolled his eyes when he saw this—which Amalia picked up and pointed at the tree directly in front of her. There was a hole inside the tree, and in it sat a small, very old black-and-white television set. The television came to life, and Alex squinted.
“Come and watch,” Amalia said without turning her head.
“Amalia,” Alex said. “I’m late. And why in the world did you have to bring your TV here?”
“Well, I need to watch my telenovelas.”
“Why do you bother with them?” Alex said. He said this in frustration; he wasn’t expecting to receive an answer.
“Because they can lie to me,” Amalia said.
It must be something inside of her: they lost their bodies and the ability to produce light through their skin, and yet the Truth-teller could still hear lies. For a moment there was no other sound but the voices coming from the black-and-white set. Alex made his way toward her, sat down.
“I had a name, didn’t I?” he said softly. “Before the end. We all had names. Do you remember?”
Amalia was silent, but Alex knew she was listening, thinking.
“I remember remembering the whole year after. Then I lost it. I thought of writing it down, but I had forgotten how to write in our language,” Alex said.
“I have never thought of that in a long time,” Amalia said. “Our names, I mean. And how we wrote.”
“Why won’t you answer in our language?” Alex felt slighted.
“It’s been six years,” Amalia said. “This place—“ she opened her arms to sweep in the trees, the pebbles, the dots of light “—this is all I remember. The position of the rocks, the tiny lights, the dark mass of the trees. And yet I can’t even remember what it was for.”
“This was where we told stories,” Alex said, speaking quickly, as if he was drowning and was running out of time. “This was where the children were taught about fake-light. It’s been six years—so what are you saying? You’re saying we may as well give up, is that what you’re saying?”
“Alex,” Amalia said, saying his name that was not even his name.
“I’m late,” Alex said. He stood up with an angry jolt and left.
During his freshman year Alex applied for and got accepted as a student assistant at the Biology department. He took the job because it kept him busy and gave him a place to stay, like right now, in between semesters, when he had just one summer class and a dire need for a cold room. The professors and students liked him because he was clean and polite, collecting all the correct documents on time, cleaning his workspace every day before leaving, his pens lined up, his keyboard immaculate, his notepad always turned to a blank page, ready for the next morning. Most of them, however, kept their distance. They knew of his family history: depressed mother committing suicide, brilliant father almost ramming into a speeding bus on a highway with his children in the backseat of the car (when they spoke about it they always made sure to make it sound as if James did not mean to drive into the bus), younger sister dying just three years ago of a fatal asthma attack. Dennis, an undergrad student two years older than him, was the closest thing to a friend he had at the University. “Maybe you’re using the wrong key,” Alex had said when they first met outside the department the semester before, Dennis anxious to put his paper in his professor’s pigeonhole (“Let me tell you where else I’d like to put this thing,”), and eager to get the damn day over with. That night, after classes, they sat in the parking lot, Dennis chugging down a paper cup filled with brandy and soda, Alex just pretending to. He was lonely, so when he was sure Dennis was intoxicated, he began to talk. He wished he could stop talking, but he couldn’t.
“So you’re photon-based organisms, instead of carbon-based,” Dennis said, filling his cup again. He frowned at Alex’s cup. “Drink that down, for God’s sake.
“Or maybe you’re like this slug I just read about,” Dennis continued, not bothering anymore with Alex’s cup. “What was the name.” He snapped his fingers. “Anyway. This slug eats algae, and then it sort of ingests the gene that allows the algae to photosynthesize so it doesn’t have to eat for days. The slug just subsists on light.”
“Can it produce light?”
“The slug,” Alex said, feeling as if Dennis were drifting away. “Can it produce light?”
“I’m not sure,” Dennis said. “So you’re saying you can?” He chuckled. “Wow. Like Jesus and all the saints.”
Alex was thinking: Perhaps this place had magic before, and then lost it. Perhaps it was the correct progression of things, perhaps I should just stop mourning.
“Maybe your ancestors lived in darkness,” Dennis said. “Like these deep-sea fishes. Ugliest fishes I’ve ever seen. They live in a place with no light, so they were able to evolve organs that can produce light. Like the bulbs on the angler fish?”
“I’m not sure about—“
“So what did you guys do?”
Alex frowned, not understanding the question.
“Did you pillage another village? Did you worship a false god? Did you rape virgins?” he said. “It must have been punishment for something, what happened to your race.” He downed his drink. “So. What did you do?”
What did he do? What was it that he could have possibly done that would warrant such a horrible end, everything lost, even their language, the words dropping from his memory like leaves from a tree? Was it that one time he held murderous thoughts about the Truth-teller? That one time he and another lighter illuminated the lake as a jest, almost blinding anyone who came near it to get water? Were those unforgivable? When James—What was his name?—killed his father in an altercation now forgotten—why didn’t the world end then? He was just a young lighter when he saw it happen, his father disappearing in a burst of light, and the world did end for him, but not for everybody else, certainly not for James, who threatened him and pushed him aside as if he were a piece of decaying bark.
When he watched Luisa—
Why didn’t this world end then? Every day there were the most horrid stories in the news, and yet this world continued, as though the lives lost were not deserving of revenge, as though the lives who took them were deserving of an endless mercy.
Did James deserve it? Did he deserve it?
End-light came on an otherwise ordinary day, with Alex (whatever it was he went by then) sitting by the lake, watching the women scoop up pebbles for their jewelry. That is a beautiful marking on that stone right there, he recalled one of them telling him, just before the sky changed color.
“Hoy,” Dennis said, taking his cup and dragging him to his feet. “Let’s go. You’re drunk.”
Celine’s older brother died two weeks ago, on Luisa’s third death anniversary, and when Celine found that out after the mass at school she took him aside and said she now felt a greater affinity to him. Affinity. He walked her to her car as the students dispersed and she tried to kiss him. He didn’t respond. Celine pulled away and said, “It’s Dennis, isn’t it.” He didn’t know what she meant. He knew Celine and Dennis dated before, but it wasn’t that, he wanted to tell her that after Luisa died the whole world had grown quiet and he couldn’t respond as quickly, couldn’t return a smile even when he wanted to.
She entered the department toward the end of his shift. The department was in the process of getting everything online, but the chairman still wanted his documents in neat, labeled files, so Alex had been spending the afternoon printing out labels and highlighting them—blue for sample exams, orange for newsletters, light-green for thesis abstracts—cutting around the printed words, taping them to pieces of cardboard, taping the cardboard pieces to folders. When Celine arrived, Alex was still surrounded by stacks of papers that needed to be grouped for filing; the task took him a long time to complete because he kept ripping out the labels, sometimes cutting himself in the process, trying to keep the cardboard pieces straight, the tape flat and even.
It was almost five; he had to get to class soon. Celine stood by the desk, her shoulder bag slung on a shoulder, watching him. It was the first time he had seen her since the mass. “It doesn’t have to be a work of art, you know,” she said. “I called your house this morning.”
“Sorry about that,” Alex began to say.
“I called too early.”
“How are you holding up?”
Celine shrugged, smiled without showing her teeth. “I’m all right. I’m enjoying my classes. I’m thinking maybe we can go have an early dinner after your work here.”
“I have class.”
Celine absorbed this answer for a moment. “After, then,” she said. “I can wait.”
Alex began clearing his desk, stacking up the unused folders on one side of his table, balling up the paper, the ripped-out labels. He stared mournfully at the documents still waiting to be filed. He couldn’t decide whether he was just tidying up or procrastinating. Celine stood in one corner, visibly aching for a cigarette.
Celine fired up a stick the moment they stepped out of the air-conditioned room, the heat enveloping them in an instant. Celine winced in disgust. “I hate this weather,” she said. “Where’s your class?”
To get to the building they had to pass through the parking lot, at the moment empty of people. “I can wait, you know,” Celine told him, as though he didn’t hear her the first time. “I’ll just be here by my car.”
Dennis was coming from another direction. He saw Alex first. “Alex!” he said. “I thought you’ve gone home. Who’d you get for Quali this summer?” Then he saw Celine with a cigarette in her mouth and his smile disappeared.
“Henry was cremated last last Tuesday, if you’d like to know,” Celine said. She had pulled the cigarette stick from her lips, the hand holding it now resting on the roof of her car.
Dennis looked away and shook his head.
“Kuya actually liked him, that’s the worst thing,” Celine said. Alex was shocked to see that she was now talking to him. “He actually liked him.”
“Will you just stop it?” Dennis practically shouted at her. “Just stop it.”
“Are you two together?” Celine said, pointing at them. “At least tell me that so I can just go home.”
“No,” Dennis said, recoiling, then glanced at Alex, embarrassed. Alex could hardly follow the conversation. “Don’t shout, Celine,” was all Alex could say.
“No, that’s not the worst thing,” Celine said, who seemed to be following another conversation inside her head. “The worst thing was that when I found Kuya in his bedroom the first thought that came to my head was, ‘Well, at least that eliminates the competition’. Isn’t that horrible?” Celine started to cry, the tears ruining her make-up. “I’m horrible.”
Dennis softened. “It’s not your fault, Celine.”
“I never said it was, you fuck!” Celine threw the cigarette at Dennis. She missed. “Celine,” Alex said, wishing he could just walk away.
“What did you say to him?” she asked Dennis. “What did you say to him? He didn’t even leave a note.”
“Celine, please,” Dennis said, but he must have spoken too late. Celine exploded, grabbing her bag and hitting him, crying between clenched teeth. With the noise they were making, Alex was sure a guard or a professor would soon notice the commotion. He stepped between them. Something metal and sharp hit him on one side of his face.
Celine pushed them away, driving Alex into Dennis’s chest. Within seconds her car was skidding out of the parking lot.
Alex placed his hand over his right cheek. He could feel the gash throbbing beneath his palm, he could feel Dennis’s hand on his shoulder. “Alex?” Alex shrugged his hand away and started walking toward the building. I have class, he kept thinking. The world was being drained of color. Dennis caught up with him and gently steered him back to the building where he and Celine had come from. “You need to sit down,” Dennis said.
The first time Alex entered Amalia’s house, Amalia pretended that he was new in the neighborhood and asked questions as she would ask a person she had just bumped into at a party. It must have been the boredom of living in such a big house, and though Alex liked her now, he refused to oblige. “So are you brothers?” Amalia asked, referring to James. “Father and son?”
“Amalia,” Alex said, annoyed, “just stop it.”
“Oh, just play along,” Amalia said. “Is he your uncle?”
Alex remembered that the Truth-teller would get a look on her face whenever she heard a lie. Alex didn’t see this look after his answer.
The lungs in Luisa’s body were weak. She was born this way. She was prone to allergies, her body couldn’t adapt to sudden changes in weather, even an upsetting situation could bring on an asthma attack. For three years, Alex would accompany James to the drugstore while Amalia sat in Luisa’s room and looked after her.
James and Luisa, even before end-light, were father and daughter—of this relationship Alex was certain. And he would think of his father, and what James did to him, and what he could do to James to make him hurt.
Did James and Luisa care about each other? They mostly acted as if they didn’t. But sometimes Alex would see James standing outside Luisa’s room at night, asking, Do you need anything? Sometimes he’d oblige her with a story from back when they were still lighters, insisting to tell the story in their own language, struggling with their crumbling vocabulary, stumbling over the gaps where words used to be. Sometimes James spoke of his wife, Luisa’s mother, gone now. Alex was shut out from all of this, and once, out of spite, he came barreling in by saying, “Tell her of that time when you killed my father. I never heard you tell that story. Tell her that.” And James looked as if he were in pain, and Luisa said, “What is he talking about?” When Luisa fell asleep, James came to Alex’s room and said, “Forgive me”, but Alex refused to listen to him, he couldn’t just apologize and expect to be spared, that’s not the way it works.
One night Amalia got dressed up for a ribbon-cutting in the city, she went away with friends and the children of friends, all smartly dressed, and somehow she managed to persuade James to tag along, too. That was the night Luisa woke up wheezing. James had left Alex a list of numbers they could call in case of such an emergency, along with instructions regarding Luisa’s medicine, but Alex ignored all of this. He sat on Luisa’s computer chair and listened to her cough and cry. “I can’t breathe,” she said. He continued sitting there as though the situation had lost its urgency.
“You shouldn’t cry,” he told her. “You’ll find it harder to breathe, if you continued crying.” Do you have my medicine, Luisa struggled to say. Alex picked up a pillow. He could have poisoned James, watch the poison eat its way through his system, but that was not the suffering Alex wanted to see, what he believed James deserved. And wasn’t he doing Luisa a favor? Wasn’t this in fact an act of kindness?
Luisa didn’t struggle much. She was there, and then she wasn’t there. He remembered the Truth-teller’s story of Amalia leaving. He didn’t see Luisa leave that night. Perhaps she left too quickly. He placed a call using one of the numbers on James’s list, and later watched James burst through the door and gather his daughter in his arms. How unfair it is, Alex found himself thinking, that he has something to gather, while I only had light, a memory of light. James cried into Luisa’s hair, her face, and Alex watched this and waited for that feeling of victory, of accomplishment, something that would tell him that he had done something right, to wash over him so he could finally lean close to James and say, Tell her of that time when you killed my father, tell her that, but there was nothing, no joy, no comfort, no triumph. He could only think of that time in the backyard when Luisa turned to him with a smile and said, Do you remember that time when, and then stopped, her face collapsing, because she could no longer remember what it was that she wanted him to remember. He had never seen Luisa smile that brightly, before or since.
The room had fallen silent, James hardly made a sound even as he grieved, and within this quiet Alex was awakened by the sound of his own sobbing. “Alex,” James said, hearing him, and came over to where he was sitting and held his hands.
Dennis sat him down near the entrance of an empty classroom and lent him a clean handkerchief. Alex pressed this to his face, willing the world to get back into focus. He almost succeeded. “God, I think Celine had a damn knife for a keychain,” Dennis said, and urged him again to walk with him to the University clinic. No, Alex said, but he must have said yes when Dennis asked if he could call James. Dennis was trying to say something to him, but he couldn’t will himself to listen. Later he must have gotten up from his seat, he must have walked down the hallway, he must have drowsed in the car. When Alex came to he was inside Luisa’s room, perched on the edge of her bed, with James sitting on the computer chair in front of him and wiping the blood off his face. James had his head tilted, so Alex could only look out the window. It was past five, the light outside was already starting to fade.
“So your friend tells me that a girl hit you,” James said. That teasing tone again. James brought a ball of cotton to the mouth of a bottle. “There’s just so much blood, but you don’t need stitches.” James swabbed his wound with antiseptic. Alex was able to register the pain, but felt too drained to cry out. James peered into his face. “Are you all right?” he asked.
“I’m in the wrong room,” Alex said. His eyes felt moist, but he wasn’t sure whether it was tears or just his eyes’ reaction to the medicine. James covered his wound with gauze.
“You said you were dizzy when I brought you up,” James said. “I thought you were going to faint, so I just sat you here.”
“This morning,” Alex said, and James paused for a moment, “this morning I was trying to think of our word for ‘joy’,” Alex said. “Do you know it? I can’t seem to remember.”
James said that he did. He said the word. Alex frowned. It sounded like the correct word but it didn’t feel right to him. How could its sound not bring with it a single memory? Alex had expected to be drowned in associations, he had expected the euphoria of an opened door.
“There.” James finished dressing his wound. His gaze dropped to Alex’s hands, resting palm-side up on his lap and covered with cuts. “You need some Band-Aids for these,” he said, holding his wrists. Alex tried to hide the sight of his palm from him, and in doing so clutched James’s hands. Not once, not once had Amalia asked him, What happened? If she had been there in the room that night she would have asked that question, and Alex would have been forced to tell the truth. I woke up and she wasn’t breathing, was what he told James on the phone, and James believed him, and James held his hands as he cried.
“Forgive me,” Alex said, his tears rolling, a trickle disappearing beneath the gauze on his right cheek.
“For what?” James sounded amused. “It’s just one word.”
Alex shook his head. He wanted to tell James of what he had done, but his language was abandoning him, he couldn’t grasp the words fast enough.
“It’s all right,” James said, so quietly and so suddenly that Alex looked up. For a moment James looked as if he wanted to say more, but he didn’t say more.
James turned Alex’s hands over and proceeded to clean the tiny, shallow wounds on his palms, his fingers. Downstairs, the phone began to ring—Dennis or Celine, perhaps, with an explanation, an apology. They ignored it. Evening was coming. From the window Alex could see lights blossoming in Amalia’s house, in their neighbors’ houses, and James asked Alex, as he had asked Alex every single day after the world ended, what he’d like to have for dinner.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Characters of color, Filipino/a authors, LGB characters, Philippines, Southeast Asian speculative fiction, Women authors