Read now: "Sanctuary" in Rogue Magazine & other writing updates

"Sanctuary" first appeared in the October 2017 Issue of Rogue Magazine. Thank you to Rogue EIC Jonty Cruz for the opportunity.

ICYMI: Cuentos Para Algernon published a Spanish translation of my short story "Once, in a small town", which first appeared in Very Short Stories for Harried Readers, included in my short story collectionA Bottle of Storm Clouds, and was reprinted in Fantastic Stories of the Imagination: People of Color Flash Anthology. (This story's traveled quite a lot!)

More:

  • My story "Web" will be appearing in The Best Asian Speculative Fiction, forthcoming from Singapore's Kitaab. Thank you to editor Rajat Chadhauri.
  • The Seventh", which first appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, will be reprinted in Apex Book of World SF Volume 5. Much thanks to Lavie Tidhar and Cristina Jurado.

Happy reading!

JESS WILSON covers Rogue’s October issue, as Philbert Dy creates an original work of fiction that gets to the truth of the model’s many fears and anxieties, and ultimately how she’s emerged from the most painful experiences triumphant. ROSE AMONG THE THORNS: Jerome Gomez explores the prolific career and the abrupt murder of Ronnie Laing, one of Manila’s top decorators for almost 30 years, whose work brought beauty to everything from Imelda Marcos’s celebrations to a city recovering from war. LONGTIME COMPANION: Lito B. Zulueta investigates the friendship between National Artist Nick Joaquin and Elena Roco, the humble professor who would come to be known by Joaquin’s circles as his loyal supporter, suspected lover, and closest confidant. CAMPFIRE STORIES: Three original tales of horror about a haunted past, a dangerous future, and an uncertain present, as conjured up by Yvette Tan, Mihk Vergara, and Eliza Victoria. INTELLIGENT DESIGN: A spotlight on seven rising designers from across various disciplines, who stand out from an increasingly crowded industry through their fresh approaches and sheer raw passion. FIRE WALK WITH ME: Inspired by the surreal art of filmmaker David Lynch, Shaira Luna infuses familiar looks and a classic wardrobe with strange new implications. PLUS: Lilianna Manahan’s encounters training with the glass sculptors of the Czech Republic; a look back at the eclectic design influences of the early porn industry; and director Denis Villeneuve on remaking a sci-fi classic for the year 2049.

Buy the issue.





Sanctuary

By Eliza Victoria

When Frances finally arrived at the airport she thought she would feel reborn, but all she felt was another death. She dropped her things in the tray for the X-Ray machine the same way she had grabbed them at her apartment: thoughtlessly, all at once. Phone, billfold with her credit cards, some cash she swiped off her bedside table, shirts, underwear, a five-day-old cardigan. Some odds and ends in her backpack. She could feel one of the airport guards glowering at her. She scooped all of these things again and hugged them to her chest. As she walked to the counters, she knew she was slowly shedding them, unable to grip the items as they escaped. A coin. A keychain.

“Is this yours?” A woman. A girl. Shiny hair. Bright pink lipstick. She was holding up an orange coin purse. Hers. Yes.

“Yes,” Frances said.

The woman appraised her with a quick look. Up-down. Frances’s thick-framed glasses, the hair sticking out of her ponytail, the baggy jeans. “Let me help you with your bag.”

She led her to a seat, like a nurse guiding an invalid down the emergency room aisle. “Everything okay?” she asked. Frances kept her head down, pushing things down the mouth of her backpack. “Let me get us some juice.”

Even in her distress, some semblance of good manners kicked in. “You don’t have to do that,” Frances said. “Thank you.” Hand on her chest. “My name’s Frances.”

“But I’d like some juice.” She laughed. “I’m Alice. Let’s go get some.”

They went down the escalator to the Arrivals hall and sat at a Burger King. Alice got them both apple juice, but decided that since it was already late in the afternoon, it was high time for a snack. “Chicken with rice, or a burger?”

They didn’t talk as they ate, which Frances liked, because it gave her room to breathe, and hated, because now she could see what an insane idea this was, buying that ticket, coming to the airport on impulse.

“Where are you off to?” Alice asked, who was done with her food, sucking ice and air through her straw.

“Cebu.”

“Oh. For vacation?”

“A friend died.”

Alice didn’t change her expression, or her tone. “Your friend will be buried there?” Are you going to the beach?

Before Frances could answer, Alice said, “Why don’t you tell me two truths and a lie?”

“What?”

“You know that game?” Alice cupped her chin. She was wearing a red-and-white braided bracelet that looked stiff, starched. At first glance, it looked to Frances like a dried piece of bloody ligament, a preserved string of human muscle. “Let me start. I don’t like airports, I think you’re pretty, and I have a house where you can stay while you sort things out.”

Frances felt as if she were watching herself from afar. Oh sure, why not flirt back, you idiot? “You think I’m pretty?” she said, smiling. “That has got to be the lie, right?”

Alice smiled back but said nothing.

“Sort things out?” Frances said. “What do you mean?”

Alice wiggled a finger. “Two truths and a lie.”

Frances sighed. “I feel fine,” she said. “My friend will not be buried in Cebu. And I’d like to see your house.”

She looked delighted. “Now?”

“Wait,” Frances said, “we’re going now?”

Someone was standing next to her. Frances didn’t hear the person approach their table. It was as though she (he? it?) were brought by a gust of wind, as though she emerged from the floor. Black robes, pale hands tied at the wrists with a red-and-white string, the same material as Alice’s bracelet. The image so strange and so out-of-place Frances could only react with surprise. Even when she realized that beneath the robe’s cowl was not a face, but a depthless shadow.

“Now,” Alice said.

*

Did she fall asleep?

Did they take another taxi?

When Frances opened her eyes, she was sitting, barefoot, on a rattan bench next to Alice. The rattan bench had lemon-yellow throw pillows. Frances glanced back. A two-story cement house. They were on the veranda. The floor tiles had geometric shapes—blue, burnt orange, specks of gold—and felt cool against the soles of her feet.

“Your friend who died,” Alice said, “where do you think she is now?”

Five or so meters from the house was a river, black as coal, the current roaring past like a deranged animal.

“Do you think her spirit lives on?” Alice asked. “Someplace else?”

The person in the robe was standing next to Alice, except that now her robe was white. The same string was tied around the wrists of her hands—the only part of her body Frances could see.

“I’m asking,” Alice asked, “because if you believed in an afterlife, in magic, in a world not of this world—if you feel even just a sliver of suspicion about the nature of reality—then there’s a chance this place would not drive you insane.”

Between the house and the river was grass, or what looked to Frances like grass.

“I brought someone here once,” Alice said. “She was steadfast. No sense of wonder at all. She believes what she sees is all that is. She kept asking about the material the house was made of, for example. Where I bought the tiles.” She laughed. “She didn’t last long. She wasn’t fun company anyway.”

“Why is the river water black?” Frances asked. “How did we get here?” She sat up. “Who is she?”

Alice glanced at the robed woman. “Who knows. I call her Tabula because she’s like a blank slate. In all the time I’ve been here she has never spoken a word to me. I think something went wrong in the transmutation, and now she can’t talk.”

“Transmutation?”

“I was desperate.” Alice waved a hand in an impatient, frustrated gesture. “I was so desperate to summon anything. A dead person, an angel, a demon. I don’t know what she is.” She lifted a hand to show her the bracelet. “But I managed to summon her, and now she’s connected to me.”

Frances stood up so quickly the rattan chair creaked. Two throw pillows fell to the floor. Where was her bag? Where are her shoes?

“Don’t go,” Alice said, looking dejected. “Please. This place is untouched by time, but that river is just a river, and this house is just a house. I can bring you back to the airport. No time lost at all. Our trays will still be on the table we left.” Alice stood up. Tabula moved to stand behind her. “Would you like to go back now?”

Frances was thinking serial killer, crazy person, torturer, but there was no denying the river was black, and that Tabula had no face.

“Show me,” Frances said.

“What?” Alice said.

“Show me. How you’ll get me back.”

Alice’s smile was the smile of a parent watching her child dance for the first time. A smile that came with fondness, awe. Pride. She nodded at Tabula. “Show her.”

Tabula moved slowly between them and opened the house’s front door.

The door opened on a bright floor, gleaming glass and steel, a high ceiling. ARRIVALS, said a white sign on the far wall.

“This is impossible,” Frances said, standing next to Tabula, who had the deep, musky smell of a dying rose.

Alice stood next to her. “Do you trust me now? You can just step right through, back in time.”
People walked back and forth in the Arrivals hall on the other side of the door, peering at their boarding passes, checking the currency exchange on the automated screens. They paid no mind to the wide-open door, to the robed woman who had to hold the knob with both hands because her wrists were tied.

“Do you want to go back now?” Alice asked. “You might miss your flight.”

Frances didn’t take long to answer. “No,” she said. “Close the door. Show me more.”

*

The house indeed was just a house, with three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a combined kitchen, dining, and living room area on the ground floor. No attic, no basement. No weapons. No locked doors. There were no appliances, and few furniture pieces. Alice used one of the bedrooms, her only possession a neat pile of clothing at the bottom of a huge closet.

Frances’s backpack and shoes were in the room opposite.

“I saw this house in a dream,” Alice said as they walked along the riverbank. “It was either a house I had lived in as a child, or a house I will be living in as an old woman. A house to be, or a house that was. As always, Tabula won’t say.”

“How long have you lived here?”

“Time means nothing here,” Alice said.

“No, but,” Frances said, “relatively speaking.”

“Time means nothing here.”

Frances was surprised to find a small wooden boat on the bank of the river. Who would ride that current? Alice seemed to read her mind. “The river calms at sundown.”

They were standing downstream. Frances looked down the black river, which disappeared into a dense stand of trees, their branches bending down into the water.

“What’s at the end of this river?” she asked.

“Another exit,” Alice said.

Tabula stood with her bound hands clasped, head bowed, hiding the shadow nothingness of her face.

“Why did you summon her?” Frances said. “You said you were desperate. Why were you desperate?”

“You have so many questions!” Alice said, amused. “And to think we just met!”

“Why do you bring people here?” Frances asked.

Alice’s answer surprised and troubled her.

“Because grief is a house,” she said, “and you can’t live in it alone.”

*

Frances still felt as if she were walking in a dream, her reactions and emotions dulled, diluted, the strangeness of it all hitting her like a pillow instead of like a punch to the temple. She didn’t feel hungry or thirsty. The sun came down and the moon appeared from the gray clouds (if that were indeed the sun and the moon and the clouds), and the river current slowed to a standstill, the water shining like glass in the moonlight. What was powering the house? There was no electricity, but the house lit up when the sun set, as if on cue.

She and Alice sat once again on the veranda, Tabula standing nearby. “Pretty, isn’t it?” Alice said, placing her head on Frances’s shoulder.

“How could this be?” Frances said. “How could this place exist?”

“Isn’t it great to feel awe again?”

“Can you go anywhere through that door?” Frances asked.

“Anywhere.”

“Anywhere? Really? Like the Louvre?”

“Do you want to go to the Louvre?”

Frances, excited, turned on the rattan bench to look inside the house, and saw a woman standing in the living room staring right at her.

*

Frances knelt on the grass where Alice caught up with her. Alice was holding her hands. She could feel it now, the strangeness, the fear. The strangeness. Feel it like a knife pushed to the hilt between her ribs.

“Who did you see?” Alice asked.

France screamed, the tears pouring down her cheeks.

“Who was it?”

“What is this place?” Frances screamed. “Why is she here?”

“Who was it?” Alice’s voice was calm.

“Abigail!”

“Your friend who died?” Alice placed her arms around her.

Frances gasping, crying, burying her face in Alice’s hair.

*

“We’ve been together for three years.” Alice sat with her on the grass as it all poured out of her: how she and Abigail met in the BPO where they both worked the graveyard shift, the plans they made together, the silence they needed to keep. “She came to me one day, and said she was leaving me. Apparently she had been sleeping with this guy at work. For more than a year. This guy, who was our boss. Who was married with children.

“She begged me not to tell anyone about the relationship.” And Frances felt again the ugly realization scraping her, like jagged rock against flesh: I am not wanted. Abigail turning from a person cherished to a complete stranger. “You know, the same way she begged me not to tell anyone that we were seeing each other.”

“So you told Management.”

“I was very, very angry.”

“She lost her job?”

“They were both given the chance to resign, which they did. I think the guy’s wife confronted Abi shortly after. A public place, like a mall. A public spectacle. I was just half-listening to the office gossips. Then I hear Abi had jumped from her apartment on the tenth floor.” Frances sighed. “Yesterday. She jumped yesterday.”

“But she won’t be buried in Cebu,” Alice said.

“Her family’s from Bicol,” Frances said. “Cebu was arbitrary. It was just the first city I saw on the list online. I booked a ticket on impulse. I don’t know anyone in Cebu. I just wanted to—“

“To escape.”

“But she’s here,” Frances said, crying again. “Why is she here?”

Frances couldn’t quite read Alice’s expression when she asked, “Why were you frightened when you saw her?” Mixed confusion and disgust. A subtle judgment. “Didn’t you want to—“ Alice glanced at the house. “Didn’t you want to talk to her, maybe?”

“What difference would it make?” Frances said. “She’s already dead.”

“You don’t think the dead can forgive you?”

“But it won’t bring her back.” Frances cried. “It won’t bring her back.”

*

Alice held her hand as they walked back into the house, a mother telling her child there are no monsters under the bed. She had felt no thirst or hunger, but now Frances felt tired. She didn’t want to sleep alone. She didn’t want to sleep in darkness. Tabula waved her hand at Alice’s urging, and suddenly there were mattresses on the floor, pillows on top of the folded blankets. Alice led her to one of the mattresses and tucked her in, smoothed the hair away from her eyes.

Grief is a house. Frances dreamt of Abigail telling her about the affair. In the dream, Frances did not tell the people at work. Abigail resigned so she could go home to Bicol, where her family lived, so she could clear her head, start over. Their boss did not resign, the bastard, so Frances asked to be moved to another division. She met someone else, someone who did not demand secrecy. She moved on. Later, years later, she and Abigail bumped into each other at the mall. They smiled, but did not speak. It was still too painful to speak, but the smile was enough.

Another dream. Abigail did not have an affair. She remained faithful in their three years together. She came home one night and made a different announcement—that she would be taking Frances to Bicol, to finally be introduced to her family. I don’t care what they’ll say anymore, she said. We’re not hurting anybody. They should allow me to be happy. On the bus to the province, Frances touched Abigail’s cheek. What? Abigail said.

Nothing, she said. I’m just admiring your face. Frances suffused with a feeling, a certainty, that she would love this woman forever.

*

Frances turned on the makeshift bed, muffling her mouth with a pillow, crying over the things that could have been, but would now never be. She felt Alice embrace her from behind. Shh. Shh. You’re safe now.

Sometime in the night, Frances woke up and saw Alice sitting, her legs folded, at the foot of her mattress. Tabula sat in front of her, mirroring the pose.

Alice whisper-shouted: “When is it my turn? When is it my turn?” A soft sobbing. “She gets to see and I don’t?”

Then: “I want you to try harder.”

*

Frances did not want to go to the Louvre, or anywhere. She just wanted to go home.

They were sitting at the dining table. Between them was an elaborate high tea set conjured by Tabula. Poached eggs, bread, butter. Tiny squares of cake.

“You know they have high tea in the late afternoon, right?” Frances said. But then, what time is it in this place?

“We’re not British.” Alice laughed.

“I want to go now.”

“Please stay. Just one more day.”

“I’m not spending another night here.”

“Okay,” Alice said. “Okay. Until right before sundown. Please.” She glanced at Tabula. “She doesn’t talk. I feel like I’m going nuts here.”

“How many people have you brought here?” Frances asked, leaning forward on the table.

“I’m not sure,” she said as she chewed on a bite of cake. “A handful.”

“Why won’t you go home?”

“Is this an interrogation?” The change in Alice’s tone was abrupt. “I just want a quiet high tea breakfast. Why do you need to know everything? Even this place exists in uncertainty.” She turned her head, quickly, as though a spider web had landed on her hair. “Wait—did you see that?”

“What?”

Alice stood up, pointed at the window. “I saw someone pass by.”

Frances shook her head.

Alice threw Tabula a triumphant smile and ran out of the house. Frances followed her. “Is it you?”
Alice shouted into the air as she ran parallel to the river. “Is it you?” Then: “Jason? Wait. Wait!”

How long had they been running? Frances ran until sweat pooled in her armpits, until she felt so light-headed she thought she would lose consciousness. When she came upon Alice, she was sitting in the mud in the riverbank, the river close enough to snatch her.

“He didn’t even look back,” Alice said.

*

There was someone walking upstairs. “You can hear that, too?” Alice said, her voice faint, as if she were half-awake. She was sitting on the floor of the living room, her arms and legs and face streaked with mud. “That belongs to neither of us, then.”

The steps were getting louder, heavier. “What the hell is going on?” Frances asked. “Who is Jason?”

“My brother,” Alice said. “He drowned while I was watching him. I thought he was just playing in the pool.”

The steps receded, and the house was silent again.

“I waited so long to see him,” Alice said, clutching her hands, as though pleading with her, “and he didn’t even look back.”

The mud on her skin had started to harden, and Frances saw through the cracks that Alice’s knees had been scraped raw.

“Let me get you some water,” she said. Frances stood up, but instead of heading to the sink, she sat at the kitchen table and felt a weariness so bone-deep she found she couldn’t move any longer.

“Grief is a house that you reside in alone.”

A voice like silk. Frances wanted to scream, but she couldn’t even open her mouth. In the living room, Alice began singing to herself. A song with a repetitive melody, like a lullaby.

Tabula sat across from her, placing her bound hands carefully on the tabletop.

“I offer you two truths, and a lie,” Tabula said. Frances realized she could now see the lower half of her face, her thin nose, her lips the color of dried blood. “Jason drowned, I am Alice’s slave, and that is not Alice singing.”

“It’s not Alice singing?” Frances whimpered. No. Which one is the lie? The song continued in the living room. “Then who is singing?”

Tabula smiled. “Two truths and a lie,” she said. “Alice is afraid, the end of the river is not an exit, and every person she brings here manages to return to the world safely.”

“What?” Frances said. “What are you talking about?”

“Who is the slave?” Tabula raised her hands, palms up, and Frances noticed that her wrists were no longer bound. “Who is the one summoned?”

“Are you an angel?” Frances asked. “A demon?”

“You say these words as if they mean anything,” Tabula said, placing her hands in her lap. “As if they can provide you an insight into my nature. If I tell you I am an angel, will that make you trust me?”

Terror made Frances’s legs tremble. Fight or run. She couldn’t decide.

“Ask me your true question, Frances.”

Frances swallowed. “Are you going to hurt me?”

“If there is a ritual that will allow you to speak to Abigail again,” Tabula asked, “would you do it?”

“Please,” Frances said, too frightened to even wipe her tears, “let me go home.”

“There is a price, of course, and Alice is willing to pay that price,” Tabula said. “What if I tell you that the people she brings here are the sacrifice needed to allow her to stay in this place longer? That you are a sacrifice? That she chose you the way a murderer chooses his victim? The distracted, the weary—the one walking alone in the night.”

“Frances?” Alice calling to her from the living room, her voice plaintive. “Is that you singing?”

“Thy Father’s house has many doors,” Tabula said. “Alice wanted to open all the doors because Jason would not come to her. Abigail came first. Who knows what else has arrived with them?”

“Who does she need to sacrifice to?” Frances asked.

“Why do gods require a sacrifice?” Tabula said. “What they relish must not be death, because what use does the eternal have for an extinguished life? What they must adore is the struggle. What they must adore is the game. What they must adore is the hope that blooms in your eyes at the moment of escape, right before it is destroyed.”

Frances felt weak. “Does she sacrifice to you?”

“Only one of these is true,” she said. To her horror, Tabula raised her hands to her cowl. She was going to show Frances her face. “You can trust me. You can trust Alice. You can trust no one.”

Frances did not want to see her face.

“Alice!” Frances said, her body finally obeying her. Her chair fell to the floor in her haste to stand.

“Is that your choice, then?” Tabula said.

Alice was still on the floor when Frances ran to the living room. Whatever was walking upstairs now seemed to be throwing furniture against the walls. Beneath the violent noise, the singing continued.

“Who is that?” Alice asked, staring at the ceiling. “Can you hear that? The singing?”

“Alice, we have to go.” Frances lifted Alice up, her arms around her torso. “How do we get out of here?”

They fell in step, until they were both running as they burst out of the house. “The river,” Alice said, out of breath. “The exit.”

She and Alice reached the boat and turned it over. They pushed it onto the water, on the calm riverbank. The white water produced by the current sluiced down the center of the river like a snake.

“That current will capsize us!” Frances said.

“It’s okay,” Alice said. “Trust me. Get in the boat.”

Alice would be pushing the boat onto the current with her in it. Frances glanced at the house, looking for Tabula, who did not follow them.

“What are you waiting for?” Alice said. “We can’t both be in the boat. I’ll have to push. I’ll jump in at the last minute.”

From the house, the sound of breaking glass.

“Don’t leave me,” Frances said.

“No,” Alice said. “Never.”

Frances stepped on a rock jutting out of the water and onto the boat. She sat down, hitting her shin with the paddles. “Get in now,” she said.

Alice, tight-lipped, walked into the water and pushed the boat backwards. The water now reached her knees.

“Alice?” Frances’s heart hammering in her chest.

Then Alice climbed on a rock and jumped in, pushing the boat away from the riverbank with one of the paddles. They rocketed down the river, the current swaying them.

They held each other’s hands, Alice facing aft. Frances looked down and realized that Alice’s knees were still dirty with mud, but she had no wounds. Her scrapes were healed in a matter of minutes.

“What happened to your knees?”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, as though waiting for something to appear on the horizon downstream. “What?”

Frances was reminded of Abigail saying, Fran, my computer’s acting up again. Can I borrow you for a minute? Following Abigail to her cubicle, then walking past it, giggling, to the fire exit no one used, so they could share a quick cigarette and a long, probing kiss. And later, for many nights, Abigail saying she had to stay late at work again, she had dinner with some college friends, she checked in at a budget hotel because the traffic was terrible and she was too tired to drive back home.

Theater. A farce.

“This river has an exit?” Frances asked. The black water betrayed no rocks, no broken branches. No creatures that could bite her. She could swim. But could she swim against the current?

Alice moved closer until their knees knocked against each other, until their foreheads touched. Heads bowed as if in prayer. “Yes,” she said. “Trust me.” Her breath smelled like strawberries and mint.

Alice’s eyes hidden by her hair. Alice’s fingers gripping her fingers. Not letting go.

Two truths and a lie: Alice had been lying to her. Tabula had been lying to her. Alice and Tabula are working together.

Frances looked out of the boat at the river’s black surface, her thoughts as wild as the current, and she thought of Abigail in her final hour, the loneliness she must have felt when she looked down and asked, Should I jump now? Should I jump now? 

END

Photo by Sampreety Ali from Pexels https://www.pexels.com/photo/aerial-view-black-wooden-row-boat-on-body-of-water-695794/

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