She was supposed to be part of that life, that past life, that other life that she thought she had buried. But there she stood, across the table, mere inches from her, and Jeanne instinctively shrank.
It was funny, but not the fun, humorous kind of funny. How much the mind forgets, but the body—with its brain and its heart—remembers, always remembers. Jeanne shrank back and paled. Her hands trembled, and there was an urge to run out of the bookstore and throw up.
There were books on the table, a hundred copies from the second run of Avarice, the young adult bestseller that hit the local literary scene by storm. Jeanne had written the novelette in her year at the hospital, edited it for another year before college, and, on the day she received her acceptance letter to the creative writing program of the country’s most prestigious university, she was given the go-signal from her agent to have it published. Five hundred copies were sold in months. She inevitably became the standout of her block, the star of the campus, and the face of the next generation of local literature. Sort of. She had never revealed her face in interviews. Neither did she have any social media account. Her publishing house did all the promotions, and they were very effective, she thought. To have a second run in her genre— dystopian science fiction—was a rarity. “It’s you,” her agent insisted. “It’s because you’re a damn good writer.” And though she smiled and thanked him politely as she always did, at the back of her mind, she credited her success to luck, though she had not been blessed with it at all before the year at the hospital.
But here she was now, signing copy after copy for a long line of fans, having her picture taken at last. It had taken a lot of convincing from her agent, publishing house, and family to get her to agree to hold her first book-signing event. After all, wasn’t she planning to write a sequel after the start of the second run? Didn’t she plan to write a trilogy? It was her older brother Gino who finally convinced her. “One day, they’ll stop being curious,” he told her. “And even if you tell your story, no one will listen.”
Gino was her first fan, the reason she was an author. Ever since she was little, Jeanne had loved reading. About a month into her stay in the hospital, she learned that visitors to the psychiatric ward were forbidden to bring books with heavy themes. She found it ridiculous. Why not, she told herself then, ask Kuya Gino to give her a blank notebook, and she would write one herself? The doctors inspected the bags and books, but they never read the diaries they encouraged the patients to write, as a form of giving them privacy. And so, in a hardbound black notebook with a string and smooth cream white pages with no lines, Jeanne poured her heart into what would later become Avarice. A dark, post-apocalyptic world with an ordinary protagonist who was forced to become a hero. A council of villains headed by a corrupt and greedy prime minister that Jeanne had named Kirsten Delgado. The council members’ names were specifically chosen as well. At that time, she had no idea of the storm her story would create. To her, it was a way to cope with the maelstrom of her mind; it was the thread that slowly pulled her back to the outside world.
For the months that followed, as the notebook was filled to the point where Gino had to get her another one, and another one, for the years that followed, the patient rewriting and the painful letting-go of unnecessary parts, Jeanne had been increasingly aware of the two worlds opening up before her. The one inside her, where justice reigned at the end, though uncertainly at first; and the one outside, to which it had given some hope.
And now, standing in front of her, was a relic of the dark period that almost—but not quite—but almost—eroded it.
“Don’t you remember me, Jeanne?” asked the girl. “I was your classmate. Your friend. Kristen Salgado.”
Jeanne had several options. One was to run away and throw up as originally planned; the other was to remain stunned and trembling on her seat. But there was a third option: to throw the row of books and skid across the table and dig her nails deep into Kristen’s throat, sucking the life out of her, watching her writhe and beg for mercy and pay for all her sins. But then she heard a gasp.
Behind Kristen emerged a young girl. She was probably around twelve or thirteen years old, certainly younger than most of Jeanne’s readers and target market, and a carbon copy of Kristen, except that her hair was longer and in a side-pony. Her bespectacled eyes were wide and her mouth was agape. She wore a fan-made shirt featuring the main love team of Avarice, and around her left wrist were two ballers bearing quotes from the book. The younger girl held two copies of Avarice, from both runs, one more battered and dog-eared and obviously loved.
“Marie,” hissed Kristen, nudging her. “Be quick, will you? There’s a line.”
“Ate, wait!” The young girl couldn’t take her eyes off Jeanne. “I still I can’t believe it. You’re Jeanne Linaw.”
“Yes,” Jeanne managed to speak at last. She avoided the eyes of Marie’s sister. Her hand still trembled, but she held it out for Marie. “It’s me. Would you like me to sign your books?”
“Go!” Kristen groaned. “Be quick, Marie! I still have a date.”
“I can’t believe it,” gasped Marie, still clinging on to her copies. “This can’t be real. I don’t believe it.”
“Well believe it now!” Kristen stamped her foot. She hadn’t changed, Jeanne realized. Her voice was the same, after all these years, and she still insisted on getting her own way. She would never take no for an answer. Jeanne narrowed her eyes and finally set her eyes on the sister. Pathetic, pathetic. Kristen hadn’t changed, but Jeanne had. And now that she had the upper hand—her little sister’s admiration and Kristen’s time for her date—she could finally do as she pleased. She could finally deliver justice.
It was all returning to her now. Blood, the taste of blood on her lips as she slammed head-first on the schoolyard railing. “Oops, sorry for the accident, Jeanne.” A smirk. Blood: old crimson stripes on her arms after an endless day of taunts ringing in her ears. “It’s just a joke, Principal Gomez. Jeanne and I are friends.” “Jeanne, iha, why don’t you try being less sensitive? Kristen obviously did not intend anything malicious.” Blood, the trickling of it down her wrists as she waited for the darkness to close in on her in the corner of the bathroom until her brother found her unconscious.
The trembling returned, but with it came the rapidness of her beating heart. She remembered her three options and immediately crossed out the first two. No, the third wasn’t viable, not exactly. There were other ways of delivering blows. Of meting out justice. Of exacting humiliation.
She was familiar with humiliation. Humiliation was reciting in class and having a group of girls, headed by her former best friend, mocking her, to their teacher’s curled lip and nonchalance. Who would dare, after all, cross the daughter of Senator Salgado? But that was not the end of it, nor its beginning.
Humiliation was having lunch in the girls’ room because the other students believed in Kristen’s rumors.
Humiliation was smiling at former friends and seeing them glare at her, or turn their backs, only to hear them join Kristen’s taunting later on.
Humiliation was having her schoolbooks vandalized, her gadgets smashed, her PE clothes stolen, her projects destroyed.
`Humiliation was laughter, the red hot burning on her cheeks that returned every time she heard groups of girls giggling, even up to now.
Humiliation was having to explain to her teachers and the principal that no, it wasn’t her lack of sense of humor, none of it was funny, only for them to tell her that Kristen and other witnesses had another story, that she was the one who was either lying or oversensitive.
Humiliation was shame, wondering if it was a joke after all, and if something was wrong with her because she found it all painful instead of humorous. Only after she had almost disappeared, months into her stay at the hospital, did she realize that her hurt feelings were valid all along. They had always been. She was still learning to accept this. It’s called gaslighting, her doctor said. A typical abuse tactic.
She could gaslight Kristen, right there and then, across the table. Talk about false, nasty things Kristen had never done, to infuriate Kristen, to destroy her in her sister Marie’s eyes. Or—she could simply tell Marie the truth. That she and Kristen were friends. And after she had refused to join Kristen to a concert because she wanted to study—the one time she said no to her whims—Kristen had turned on her, bringing the whole school with her. Or—she could destroy Kristen in another way, by grabbing Marie’s copies and tearing it in front of her, but Marie would get hurt, she realized before she could start. Marie, who had done nothing.
No, there must be some other way.
Marie grinned and finally handed Jeanne’s books to her as she was making this conclusion in her mind. “Please, oh please sign them! By the way, what advice can you give young writers? I’ve started writing stories–because of you–because of your books–but they aren’t really that good! They’re not real stories, per se, just fanfiction, but I’m also planning–I’m also thinking of a new story to write–my own setting and characters this time–dystopian too!” She released a breath. “Oh, am I disturbing you? I’m so, o sorry!”
Jeanne had signed her name on the first pages of both books. She smiled at the young girl. “Don’t apologize,” she said. “It’s good that you write too. Did you know that writing helped me through a very dark part of my life?”
She did not look at Kristen as she said this, but she could feel the shift in the way her former friend stood, the new stiffness in her posture.
“It’s helping me through mine,” sighed Marie, and her eyes had fallen.
Jeanne understood at once.
“Marie,” she said softly. “Do you know what can make you a good writer?”
“Look at me,” Jeanne said firmly, and it took some flinching before Marie could finally meet her eyes. And Jeanne’s eyes were gentle, encouraging. “You read a lot. You write every day. That’s how you improve. But to be a truly good writer, you must be a good person.”
“We have to go–” Kristen cut in, about to reach for Jeanne’s books. But Jeanne was no longer a victim. She glared at Kristen, for the first time in three years, she glared at Kristen and Kristen backed off.
“Wait,” she commanded. Kristen frowned, but that was all.
“Read a lot, write every day, be a good person,” repeated Jeanne, writing it down on the first page of the battered copy. “Being a good person is the most important part, do you know, Marie? You must be sensitive to be a writer. You must feel other people’s sadness and happiness; you must care for them because they are your readers as well as your characters. They are real. And their feelings are real. All of them—even the nasty feelings.” She looked at the young girl straight in the eye. “Do not listen to anyone who tells you that being sensitive is wrong. Those who don’t care about their feelings, or others? Well, they need to read more books. That’ll help them connect to humanity.” She smiled reassuringly. “It’s the sensitive ones who are the strongest, Marie. We feel to the fullest what others avoid.”
“But it hurts,” Marie said.
“But it won’t last,” promised Jeanne. She looked at Kristen again. “It won’t last. And one day, before you know it, you’ll win.”
Jeanne gave one last smile to Marie and handed her the signed books. She squeezed her free hand. “Write on, Marie,” she said. “I believe in you.”
“Thanks,” Marie said. “Thank you so much, Ma’am Jeanne! You’re kinder in real life! I’ll–I’ll keep my promise!” She threw a flying kiss, which Jeanne returned, and just like that, with a wave of goodbye, Marie disappeared with her sister.
“Next please,” Jeanne said. “Sorry for taking so long.” The next person in line stepped forward, book in hand, and Jeanne wondered what kind of life she had changed this time. That was the magic of books. There was never just one writer.