The fact that I was wanted dead was not a valid excuse for never going out alone again, despite Khit’s protests. I refused to cower in fear, and besides, I still had school. Khit had his own classes to teach, and he couldn’t be by my side twenty-four-seven. In the end, we compromised, and I let my fiancé drive both of us to school the next day, while he let me go to class. The only thing that appeased him was that Dr. Bratsin was the professor for one of my classes and would make sure I was safe.
After making me vow on his dead grandfather’s grave that I would go straight to his office after class and to stay as far away from Rina as possible, he reluctantly sauntered away to teach his own class.
My heart thudded as I thought of my first encounter with Rina, knowing that she was Tyler’s accomplice. Part of me was scared to death of her, but the other part just couldn’t get over the fact that she’d saved me at Sea Universe. Could she really have just been trying to throw me off her tracks?
But it seemed I wouldn’t have to worry about Rina. She didn’t show up to class, or at least, she didn’t come sit by me. She might have been somewhere in the lecture hall, but in a class of three hundred, it was impossible to tell.
The class was getting a little rowdy, as Dr. Bratsin still hadn’t arrived. Then I saw him come through the back door closest to me, his attire as dowdy as ever. But I had to say, now that I knew he was a yaojing, his appearance didn’t seem too lacking in appeal anymore. He had strong features and deep, striking eyes, although they were hidden by his owlish spectacles, and I observed that it was the glasses that made him look older than he was. On closer examination, and knowing what I knew about him, I saw that he really was only about Khit’s age. True, he still looked eccentric, but now I could see some sort of inner strength that emanated from his person.
He seemed to be looking for someone as he entered the room, and then those round, orange-shaped glasses landed on me. The strides he took to get to me were far from the creepy scampers I would picture a rat taking. When he got to my desk, he slipped a note under my notebook, and without a word, proceeded to the front of the classroom. All other students were too preoccupied with their pre-lecture chatting to notice as I unfolded the piece of paper.
I’m canceling lab today. Come to my office after lecture. Something important has come to my attention. ~EB
It was probably related to the events of this past weekend, but I wondered if Khit was coming too. It didn’t seem like it though, considering he hadn’t mentioned anything to me this morning. As Dr. Bratsin started class with the announcement that lab was canceled, I texted Khit to ask if he knew about it. I wasn’t expecting an answer right away, since he was probably starting class too, but within five seconds, I felt my phone’s vibration in my pocket.
Don’t know either. He called me too. Meet you there.
Dr. Bratsin’s office was as drab as his clothes. The dingy paint of the four walls was a creamy off-white, with spotty brownish stains from where an insect here and there had met its ill-fated demise. Other than those stains, a tall oak bookshelf crammed with textbooks and a desk were the only other decorations in the room; it was safe to say that Dr. Bratsin was not a huge fan of hanging photos, paintings, or calendars. He hadn’t even put up a single accolade out of the numerous awards he’d been reported to have received.
Who could blame me for not having had a clue that he and my fiancé were best friends, when there were no picture frames of family or friends?
His desk, at least, gave some character to the otherwise naked room. It was incredibly messy, the complete opposite of Khit’s desk, which usually only had his computer and a pen. Dr. Bratsin’s desk contained huge piles of books and papers, stacked in a way that the slightest nudge would be enough to topple the tower to the ground. Some of the books were still open, stacked one on top of another, as though the professor hadn’t even had the time to close and re-shelve them.
“Dr. Bratsin,” I greeted, closing the door behind me.
“C-call me Mil,” he said. “You’re Khit’s f-fiancée after all. H-have a seat.” His nervous tick kicked in, his head jerking forward, as though nodding towards the empty chair by his desk. I did as he bade, as he clicked his pen closed. “I c-called Khit. He’ll be here in h-half an hour.” His eyes peered at me hesitantly beyond his glasses. I got the feeling that he was a little embarrassed about something. “I-I wanted to t-talk to you for three reasons.” He cleared his throat nervously, as his chin bobbed up again. “Khit s-said he told you that I was…was…in your apartment.”
Then I knew why he was so nervous. If even a natural born charmer could feel a little shameful of spying on his best friend’s girl overnight, how much more a shy, awkward man with practically no dating experience. “It’s all right. You were only helping Khit to protect me. I appreciate it, so there’s no need to apologize.”
“There is e-every need to a-apologize,” he argued sincerely, blushing profusely. “I told him w-we should tell you what we were d-doing, but he convinced me to do things his way. I did not m-mean to be a peeping Tom, and I a-assure you, I did not d-do anything….unseemly while you were asleep. But p-please forgive me anyway for spying on y-you without your permission.”
I smiled at this man, thinking that despite his oddities, he really was sweet. “Since the apology was offered, I forgive you. Now, I assume you also want to talk about who is trying to kill me.”
“Yes, Khit told me what happened over the weekend.” Surprisingly, now that he’d gotten over that apology, his stutter had almost disappeared, as well as his chin bobbing. “I found out something very interesting this morning, but let’s wait until Khit gets here.” He paused, the corners of his mouth turning down thoughtfully. “In the time being, I’d like to talk to you about something completely unrelated before Khit arrives because he might get upset that I br-brought it up in this way, but it needs to be s-said.” The slight stutter and the sudden helpless nod told me whatever Dr. Bratsin was about to say was making him nervous again. I wondered if it might have to do with Khit’s past, the secrets he’d never told me.
“Are you going to tell me how the two of you became friends? How you saved his life?”
He looked surprised at the question, as if that were far from his thoughts. “I guess not,” I sighed.
“No wait. He said I s-saved his life?”
I nodded. “But he didn’t say how.”
A fleeting smile, half filled with sadness, flittered across his face. “I th-think it’s up to him to share the details.”
Disappointed, I still dared to venture, “Can you at least tell me how you met? He never even told me you’re his best friend.”
Dr. Bratsin stood from his chair and paced the short distance behind his desk. “All right,” he said finally. “But only b-because I can relate the story to what I originally wanted to discuss with you.”
I apologized quickly, realizing we had totally veered off topic.
“No we haven’t. As I said, it r-relates.” He began the story, still stammering and jerking his head nervously at first, but as the words flowed, those nervous habits eased, maybe because he’d become too immersed in the memories to remember my presence.
Mil and Khit met in college. Neither had known the other prior to the first day of freshman year. Both were geniuses who had skipped a few grades in school—Mil three, Khit four—so they were still in the turbulent years of adolescence, stuck between childhood and adulthood, geniuses when it came to books, but not life. For this reason, they’d been paired as roommates. They had such different personalities that it was not a surprise that they hadn’t gotten along at first.
Mil was absent-minded and messy; Khit was an “everything in its place” neat freak. Mil was a packrat; Khit stuck to the bare essentials. Mil was awkward, hated being in the spotlight, and became drenched in sweat at the mere thought of a waitress taking his order much less carrying an entire conversation with the opposite sex. But Khit radiated charisma, exuded arrogance and self-confidence every time he opened his mouth, and girls, although most in college were a lot older, swarmed around him. And whereas Mil never liked to talk about his achievements, Khit bragged about himself every chance he got.
But over time, Mil observed that Khit was very unhappy and angry. Sometimes he would take out his anger by punching the wall, but he did this in secret, choosing to suppress his anger when he had company. Mil only knew this because he saw the dents in the wall of the shower.
One night, Khit received a phone call from his father, and Mil pretended to be asleep. That call revealed all of Khit’s secrets—the difficult relationship Khit shared with his father, how his mother had abandoned them when Khit was young, and even more startling, that like Mil, Khit was a yaojing.
For a long time, Mil kept quiet about what he’d heard and what he was. Until one day, when Khit saved a girl from one of the guys in their dorm. Mil and Khit had just returned to the dorm after class late one Friday night to find that there was a party. As they’d passed through the common room to get to their room, Khit froze, turned around, and marched straight to one of the guys who was pouring a girl a drink, and he grabbed the glass and poured the contents on the guy’s head.
“He had a premonition, didn’t he?” I interrupted, entirely fascinated by Khit’s heroics, even then. “The guy slipped something in the drink, and he would have raped the girl if Khit hadn’t interfered.”
“Exactly. But as you can imagine, that guy was not too pleased to have some scrawny boy four years younger pour alcohol on his head.”
A fight broke out. Khit did well defending himself against ten angry, drunk college boys, but it was obvious he needed help when someone picked up a beer bottle and smashed it on Khit’s head. So Mil changed into his rat form. One of his powers was to multiply himself, and suddenly dozens of rats occupied the room. Everyone screamed, men not excluded. The party ended right then and there, with the police coming two seconds too late, while Khit and Mil managed to slip out of the building. Khit was bleeding blue all over, and they had to hide until his head wound healed. So it was by the trash bins outside the building that the two of them became friends, revealing that they were both yaojing.
Two years passed. Mil still sensed a certain restless anger within Khit. Although Mil was completely content studying the intricacies of the cardiovascular system for hours, Khit would read the book, commit the words to his photographic memory, and score well on the exams. But he had no passion for it. There was a certain directionless despair about him, no sense of motivation or purpose.
He told Mil that his father wanted him to be a surgeon, just like him, but his real passion was for literature. After memorizing the words of his biology textbooks, Khit would spend the rest of his time researching myths and legends around the world. In particular, he was fascinated with legends from Asia about the yaojing, and he would compare them to legends from other countries. There were other names for yaojing, he told Mil—selkies, changelings, mermaids—they were all examples of shapeshifters. Every tale when this god or that goddess transformed into some animal was a story about the yaojing.
His obsession was borderline dangerous in Mil’s mind. Mil warned Khit that there was nothing romantic about the yaojing. They were ruthless and used humans in the most evil way imaginable—helping them corrupt their souls by encouraging them to commit the seven deadly sins. They’d killed his parents when they had tried to leave the yaojing circle to live normal lives among the humans, and Mil had been raised by his human godparents. But Khit said he felt closer to his mother whenever he read shapeshifter legends, and claimed he knew better than to become a brainless follower.
And then one night, the Yaojing Elite came. They wanted Mil and Khit to leave the human world and join them. Mil refused outright. The yaojing didn’t care much about his refusal, as they believed him to be just as weak as the next rat. But they wanted Khit desperately and managed to convince him to join them on a trial basis when he hesitated.
“I begged Khit not to accept their offer, but he said he needed to know how the yaojing lived. He p-promised to act just as an observer.”
“He must have kept that promise,” I said, but part of me wondered at the way Dr. Bratsin had spoken—half filled with regret, the other half with disappointment. Still, I couldn’t help but sound hopeful. There was no way Khit would have done anything truly atrocious. “He told me that he might have encouraged their activities, but he couldn’t have joined in. He said he felt uncomfortable and left.”
“I’ll let him fill in the details of those few years,” Dr. Bratsin replied. “He’ll tell you when he’s ready.”
“A few years?” I exclaimed in shock. “He was with them for years?”
“Up until his second year in medical school,” came Dr. Bratsin’s grave answer. “I think the only reason he stayed that long was because he knew it made his father angry. But at that point, I was fed up with it, so I bit his ankle.”
“Snakes and rats secrete poisons that paralyze. I think you know about snake poison already.” He glanced at me shrewdly, and I knew he’d been told about the incident with Scyther last summer. “Anyway, my poison isn’t as dangerous. It only paralyzes someone for about two days before wearing off.” The professor sounded proud. “He couldn’t do anything but sit in his chair and glare at me.”
Dr. Bratsin used that one glorious day to talk some sense into Khit. As soon as he had been admitted to medical school, Khit’s restlessness had increased. He went about in robotic motions, doing what he had to do with a total lack of energy. And he complained constantly about what horrendous deeds the yaojing committed, but never trying to change his own ways. Mil, still his roommate, although in grad school, not in medical school, had sat in the sidelines quietly, but not anymore. He lectured Khit for several hours straight, telling him to create his own destiny instead of allowing his father to dictate his every move.
“And I told him to get the hell out of the yaojing circle if he hated them so much. Why was he helping them when he knew it was wrong? Just to spite his father? He couldn’t erase the yaojing blood in his veins, but that didn’t mean he had to be like them. He could use his premonitions to help instead of hurt.” Dr. Bratsin gave a reflective smile. “I must have shouted louder than a foghorn. Told him to have some aim and purpose in life. He had two good arms and two good legs, and at least he wasn’t paralyzed. And then I left him to stew the rest of those two days, while I hid, waiting for the paralysis to wear off. I was sure he would come and kill me.”
“Your strategy must have worked,” I reflected. “He’s no longer with the yaojing, he’s out of medical school, doing something he loves, and he’s very purpose-driven. You really did save his life.”
Dr. Bratsin grew several shades darker. “Oh, I d-don’t deserve all the credit. H-he chose to change in the end.” He cleared his throat. “Which brings me to my next point. I’ve b-been observing you, and I-I see the same restlessness in you that I saw in Khit.”
My jaw fell open. That, had completely come out of the fifth dimension.
“I d-don’t mean you’d likely join the yaojing or pick a fight with the next s-stranger,” he said. “What I’m talking about is y-your lack of passion for your studies, the r-robotic motions you exercise each day.”
“But I study hard,” I finally was able to defend. “I try my best.”
“Do you?” He raised an eyebrow questioningly. “It’s true, y-you come to my office hours a lot, but only to ask the most basic of questions, not to delve deeper. And I noticed that y-you like to write little plotlines in your notebook and textbook. C-can you honestly tell me you put in all the e-effort you could when you studied for the midterm? Or did you spend more time writing your stories?” He reached next to him, pulling a packet of paper, and flipping it to its front. Then he handed it to me.
I stared for a long moment, the words a flutter of chaos in my mind. The red markings overtook the pencil markings. Reality came crashing down. I’d scored a twenty two out of one hundred, my poorest score ever in the history of my life.
“I t-tried to go easy on y-you already,” he said, and I could hear the pity in his voice. “Because I know a lot has been going on lately.”
I couldn’t even flip through the pages. It already took too much effort to keep the tears from falling, but pride kept me from crying in front of a professor. My hands were shaking, and I bit down on my lip until I tasted blood. I should have been expecting it. The test had been way too hard, and I’d left a lot of answers blank, but that didn’t make it hurt any less.
“Tell me Caren, why do you w-want to be a doctor?” came the next question.
The last thing I wanted was to be interrogated. I wished I could just leave, but dignity kept me glued to that chair. Forcing myself to replay the question, I realized that I couldn’t come up with an answer. I hadn’t even asked myself why I wanted to be a doctor. It had just been engrained into my head since I was little. But I couldn’t exactly tell him it was because it was my parents’ wish.
“I-I want t-to help people.” Goodness, now I was the stammering one.
At least it was a good fallback answer for sure. And it wasn’t a lie. I’d always admired nurses and doctors for being able to save lives. Their jobs were filled with purpose. Even more so, when they made their patients smile or laugh. Callous, unsmiling doctors annoyed me.
“So you’re saying w-writing those stories of yours is a complete waste of time,” he said. “T-they won’t help people get better. That means you should forget about writing and focus on your science studies.”
“That’s not true,” I burst out furiously, banging the dratted test back onto Dr. Bratsin’s desk. “Doctors might be able to help people heal physically, but writers are the doctors of the soul. We can help people emotionally. At the end of the day, people need to relax and escape the stresses of reality. They do so with a good story—a story filled with hope for the hopeless.”
And to my horror, I heard the first of my sobs burst forth, as the tears turbulently poured down. Dr. Bratsin could fail me in physiology, but he could not undermine the value of my stories, or any story for that matter. At that moment, I hated scientists for their arrogance in believing that the arts had no value to society except as purely aesthetic.
My shoulders heaved as the angry sobs jerked out uncontrollably. I picked myself up and ran before I could embarrass myself further.