KS MARQUEZ - THE CEILING
As I stumble to maintain balance, my feet thump loudly across the moist grass while I sprint through this deserted woods. Twigs snapping, small rocks tumbling, and mud splashing every time my bare feet hit the cold ground. Charging towards a much brighter area, I focus all my strength on getting to the shimmering light I can see from the distance. Confused, it’s as if I’m dashing away from something horrible instead. Oblivious to this emotion, I continuously gush through the trackless forest like a thirsty deer hunting for water. The branches from the trees and wet leaves from the bushes slapping my arms, my legs, and my face, as I speed through this unexplainably endless forest. I jump over logs and skip over deep forest ditches, longing to get to that bright area up ahead.
I ignore how my thighs sore from running, how my bare feet bloody from cuts. Spiky rocks and rough soil piercing through my soles. I ignore how I am gasping for air, needing to breathe every time my feet alternately strike the earth as I bolt through the forest. The running shadows cast by the skinny trees suffocate deeply into me. It seems as though my ankles have been strapped only in one place. How long have I been running? I don’t know if I have that answer. I just need to get there. To where? To that bright clearing, remember?
Panting for air, my top is drenched in sweat. I’ve never perspired like this in my entire life. Already taking huge heavy breaths, I can no longer achieve a good breathing rhythm, my inhale-exhale ratio no longer makes sense. My lungs seem like they are being squeezed tightly by a man’s heavy hand.
Spinning my head around to check the trail I was leading, to my horror, there is nothing. Pitch black. As I turn my head back, there appears one beautiful deer running ahead, galloping across the field so effortlessly. Its majestic antlers clearly visible while it gracefully whizzed through the damp woods. As my sweat continuously drips down my face, another deer run past beside me. It gallops faster, further ahead of me. My heart racing and my pulse throbbing abnormally before I realize more and more deer are chasing past me.
A herd speed through when a gunshot echoes across the woods. One of the deer drops, blood spilling everywhere. Another sound of a gunshot coming from behind roars all over the surrounding awaking even the tiniest creatures that may have been in slumber. More and more bullets breezed through the air as more and more deer fell on their knees, dead even before they can reach that bright clearing. It is a blood bath. The deer are running for their lives as much as I am running for mine. Boom. Zoom. Splat. The blasts getting closer and closer to me. I’m next! My heart is thumping like a madman. Run, Alicia, RUN! I hear myself belt out a scream as I wake up with a start.
My chest is tired and heavy. Blanket soaking in sweat. Trying to gain all my senses together, the memory of my dream slowly fades as my eyes constrict to adjust from the daylight. I’m not sure what time it is, but it must be midday. It isn’t the first time I’ve been haunted by a nightmare in the past few weeks since the isolation. My sleeping pattern has been altered and my body’s internal clock can no longer grasp a sense of normality.
I lean over to look at my mother’s bed to see if she heard me scream. Living in an old cramped shack, it’s impossible if she didn’t hear me. Then realizing, she isn’t here in the first place.
God knows what time is it already. My body is ordering me to get up and eat. I am too tired to do any of these. I’m not just physically tired but mentally exhausted as well. I’ve been stuck in this house for seems like an eternity. Our town’s chief public officer has repeatedly reminded us to stay inside. All public gatherings are prohibited. I obediently comply not only for fear of catching the deadly influenza but also because as a medical student, I know the dangers brought by the germs.
I turn my attention straight up to the ceiling made of oak wood panels I’ve known too well. For days and days, I’ve gazed at this ceiling. Nothing to do but lie in bed like a carcass waiting to be eaten. Staring up the canvass of leak stains and brown spots, I am already well familiar with each wooden lines and curves dancing across the panel surface. Some areas have elongated egg-shaped lines enclosed in another graceful mystified ellipse, then into another until it merges with a different formation. I’ve been acquainted too well with where the darker spot areas are and how the gradient transitions to the lighter regions. I have very well studied where the nails are carefully buried across the panel edges. Some nail heads are rustier than the others, but all of the heads lay flat perfectly on the exterior.
After countless of tiring days of isolation, my perception of the then seemingly nothingness of the ceiling is completely changed since. I continue to marvel at its vibrant glory. I wonder how I never noticed the interesting pattern of lines and blotches on the ceiling before. I could connect them like the Big Dipper that can be formed from the night sky. Right at the center of the ceiling, I can trace out a figure of an open libro.
It looks just like my Delafield and Prudden textbook. During my hospital clerkship, I would constantly recall the steps of a medical procedure in my head. I could recite them in detail and know them like the back of my hand. I excelled at standardized examinations. But every time I perform a procedure, I became clumsy. During practical tests in the real hospital, I failed miserably. I trembled every time I wait for my turn even if I knew the medical procedures by heart. My skills fell short.
Francisco, that pesky kid who always overshadowed me, could perform medical procedures like a professional. He could do procedures effortlessly like chest compression, phlebotomy, and even the complicated endotracheal intubation. I fumbled like a fallen animal while Francisco, like a deer, whizzed through the air elegantly.
Focusing my attention again at the ceiling, on the right corner from where my head lies, I can find an image of a tortilla. Mother’s favorite food.
Just before the isolation, the authorities brought my mother to the quarantine facilities after getting the odd summer cough. Living in the university dorms for scholars, I needed to go back to our old shack up in the countryside upon hearing the news. I was advised not to visit her, to avoid being infected.
Mother likes to keep the house clean and neat even for its small size. But the longer I stay here alone, the smaller the house seems to become. The surrounding walls inching a bit closer towards me every single day. The main door facing east at the end of the house stood so distant to me before but now appears to be much nearer. The stale air caused by closed windows makes it more difficult to breathe.
Still scanning the ceiling surface, my heart leaps at the sight of a special figure. It’s not even an image, it looks like curvy lettering of a name I adore the most: Sal. Cowering under my blanket, I turn left to face my diminutive bedside desk with an ornate candle lamp. Right beside the lamp is a framed portrait photograph of Sal. His boyish smile flashing back at me.
I received no word from him since he was drafted a year back. Before leaving for the army, he promised he will return for me. We would travel, see the world, and start a new life together. It’s unexplainable how I terribly miss his touch. It’s particularly hard these times when you can see the dead bury the dead. Thousands of people die in a day. I have seen piles of dead bodies being transported.
It was just a matter of days before the health officers placed the town on strict quarantine and advised people to stay indoors. Gatherings were banned, including church services and festivals. Rations had been implemented by the government, so I didn’t need to leave home. I had seen some of my neighbors leave their houses and never return. I fear for the life of my mother, but for now, it’s too dangerous to set foot outside. I perceive death is creeping me around the corner, and I am morbidly dreading it. The officials are calling for medical volunteers due to a shortage of doctors and nurses. However, for the life of me, there are absolutely no circumstances that will make me leave this house. I don’t see it as a possibility at all.
Ultimately, at the far lower-left corner of the ceiling, I find the most striking figure: a striding ciervo with its obvious antler popping from its head. How strange. It feels like I just dreamed about deer. Or did I?
Lightheaded, I finally get up heading towards my desk where Sal’s dark eyes gaze back at me. Mustering my remaining strength, I pull a wooden squeaky chair and slump onto it. Inside the desk’s drawer lie Sal’s love letters for me from which seems like centuries ago. I read all his letters over and over again since the isolation. I have memorized every single word in it.
I unfold my favorite one dated 23rd September. It was when he confessed his obsession and intense passion for me. He scribbled how he longed for my embrace and soft lips, how he wanted to caress my back and feel my warmth. When I read his words, I can hear Salvador whisper in my ear, as though all the text came right from his mouth. My hands start to shake. Salvador wrote how he wanted to kiss every inch of my body, missing no spots. He pleasured tracing the moles of my feet with his moist tongue, like drawing constellations from the night sky. He wrote how he longingly wanted to slap my arms, my legs, and my face in fervent admiration. I can’t help but touch myself as I run my hand down my bosoms. I miss them being squeezed by his heavy hand.
I pick up his photograph, his dark eyes staring intensely through my soul. I imagine us from a long time ago, kissing passionately, keeping each other warm as if there’s no tomorrow. I close my eyes as I reach down, down to the core of my womanhood. The wooden chair squeak against the room floor as it moves along with my motion. Squeak…squawk. I feel my heart racing, my pulse throbbing. Squeak... You are such a coward! Squawk... You have been weak all your life! Squeak... When the world needs you, you are here hiding! Squawk... You want to be a doctor, but when you are needed the most, you hide! Squeak… squawk… squeak... squawk… Alicia, you pathetic FOOL!
I hear myself belt out a loud moan of ultimate relief when the radio suddenly turns on. A loud frequency noise roars across the room. Boom. Zoom. Splat. A low-pitched announcer speaks up. “A Hero’s Welcome will be held later today at the military base for our dear soldiers who will finally be returning home…”
He’s finally back. Astounded, I slowly touch my face abruptly wet with tears. Without a trace of hesitation or fear, I dash towards the door to open it. The shimmering light from the sun hit my eyes. For the first time in a long time, I’m ready to leave the house and face the Spanish flu.