In which a research assistant with a variety of secrets encounters a fellow caffeine addict
This is the first chapter/intro to What Red May Mean (revised). The premise is modern day LM/El Fili crossover in Metro Manila, circa 2010. I’ve taken plenty of liberties with locations and events.
If anyone ever asked me where it began, I would have to say it happened during the storm. Not before or after. I always blame it on the rain.
The text message finally got to my phone at around five in the afternoon, when it was really too late to be doing much of anything. ‘Flood isn’t going down; they’ve found a catfish already out of the gutters. It’s that bad. Where will you be staying tonight?’ Attached to my roommate’s message was a picture of a rather evil-looking fish swimming by a half-submerged park bench and two trashcans.
I replied back right away: ‘Guess I’m stuck at work, Juli. I left my boots in my room, you can borrow them till I get back tomorrow.’ I bit my lip as I looked up from the numbers I’d been trying to make sense of, to the still rather drenched window some feet away from the computer terminal. I should have gotten out maybe two hours ago, but it wasn’t as if I could do this stat work back at the boarding house. I wasn’t even sure if there was any electricity at that place.
The truth was that I wasn’t even sure I could get home at all. I’d definitely picked a good place to get stuck in for the night: the university’s psychology lab. When I agreed to work here thrice a week after school, I didn’t quite mean I’d end up sleeping here.
Before I could check the flood updates, I heard the laboratory’s door open. “Anyone here---ah, there you are, Eponine. What are you still doing here?”
“Research. Do you still have classes, Mr. Prouvaire?” I asked, turning my chair to look at the guy who’d just entered. It was a little early for the grad students to be around, but then again this was Jean Prouvaire. He was also something of an adviser to the school literary folio, so he was always on campus earlier than most of his other classmates would be.
“No announcement yet, from the university. You should go though, while you still can,” he said as he took off his purple coat and threw it on a chair. He sat down in another chair and let it spin a few times before he stopped it by grabbing onto a table. Then he fished his phone out of his pants pocket and checked it. “Grantaire is on his way here.”
I shook my head as I continued filling up the spreadsheet with numbers and data. I had to work faster; there would be no chance of doing anything productive if Grantaire was going to hang out here. He and Prouvaire apparently went back a long way; some story involving them being the only two kids in their college block who had very French names. My fingers were practically flying over the keyboard by this time and soon the only thing I could hear was the rapid tapping of the keys, almost like the rain drumming on the rooftop several floors above us. Earlier that day one of the girls in class had said I had lightning in my fingers. If only she knew how I’d gotten them to be that way.
I was already at the last column of numbers when the lab door clattered open again. “Jehan! Eponine! We are now officially stranded!” Grantaire greeted as he threw down his wet backpack on top of one of the other chairs. He wrung his curly hair out before crossing the room towards us. His pants were soaked halfway up to his knees and his shoes were making a squelching sound as he walked.
“You didn’t actually wade there?” I asked him, noticing the footprints he was leaving behind.
“No choice,” Grantaire replied as he began taking off his socks and shoes. He laughed when he saw Prouvaire grimace; only then did he put his wet things to one side, under an entire bookshelf of theses. “Eponine, could you remind me that I left them here?” he asked.
“I will unless Prouvaire and I want to see you go home barefoot,” I said. It wouldn’t have been the first time within this school year alone; today marked the third week in.
“You are a cruel little girl,” Grantaire said dramatically. He peered over at what I was working on and he whistled. “Almost done already?”
“Yeah. I do have another job, you know,” I said. Working in research kept me in the school’s good graces and gave me enough for some meals, but it wasn’t enough to keep a roof over my head. There was a reason I kept two planners in those days: one in red, one in black. I quickly saved my file and yawned; I always got sleepy at this time of the day. “Just yell if someone goes looking for me,” I said as I got out of my chair.
Prouvaire groaned as he tried to retie his ponytail. He was the only faculty member who could let his hair grow out that long...and get away with it. “Are you going to the vending machine again?”
“Why, you want something from there?” I asked.
“No, no. I’m not a med student like my roommate is, but don’t you worry about your heart or something, Eponine?” Prouvaire said."All that coffee cannot be good for you."
“I’m only twenty,” I said. “What about you Grantaire?”
“Only if it’s Irish coffee,” Grantaire said with a grin.
“Very funny,” I replied as I grabbed some coins. Of course there would never be Irish coffee in the third floor vending machine; one of the few things that this campus was a little more watchful about was inebriation on the premises. Then again they didn’t know of the thermos of vodka that had somehow made its way up into the chemistry lab last week.
Even if the lab I had just left was airconditioned, it was actually colder outside in the hallway. I had to stick my hands in my jacket pockets as I went to the vending machine that was located at the end of the hallway, near the old elevator that no longer worked. The floor was quite slippery because the windows had to be left partway open for the sake of getting some air. It was always a choice between wet or stifling, even in this grand university.
I might have been singing as I walked. I might have even kicked out my shoelaces just to listen to the aglets scrape across the tiles. I was not quiet, and the only other person who was in the hallway at that moment still tells me so. I did shut up when I got to the end of the hallway
It wasn’t every day that I saw a boy lying on the floor, trying to reach under the vending machine. I stared at him for a moment, wondering if his hair was really that golden color or if he was just one of those guys who had a love affair with yellow hair dye.
“Excuse me. Did you drop something?” I asked.
“A coin,” he muttered, shoving his arm further into that impossible gap.
I took a look at the display on the vending machine and saw some numbers there which meant that he’d already started putting in some change. I couldn’t tell him to leave while I saw to my own drink first, but how long was he going to be on the floor? Then there was that slight quivering starting in my fingers, something that only a hot drink could banish at this point.
“Can’t you just get another coin?” I asked as I fiddled with the zip of my jacket.
He muttered something before he slowly backed away from the gap. His right arm was covered in dust and grime all the way past his elbow. “Not exactly an option,” he said through gritted teeth, glaring at the machine as if he was willing it to melt or give up his drink for free.
“Don’t you have a twenty peso bill or something?” I asked impatiently.
“Would I have been on the floor if I had one?” he replied, his eyes narrowing at me. Now that I had a good look at him, I was sure I had never seen him before. It was odd since I’d been at the university for some years now, and while I didn’t know everyone’s name, I had some idea as to faces. His was of the more unforgettable sort: fair, a good pair of cheekbones, and eyes that were an unusual shade of blue. That was the face of someone who did not grow up in this side of the city.
I watched as he looked at the machine again. He obviously didn’t see his arm was too big for the task. “You would have been better trying to sweep it out with a broom or something,” I said as I crouched down to take a look at the problem. I could see a large coin glinting in the darkness. I knew I should have gotten a broom but that would have involved breaking into the supply closet. So that was how I found myself on the floor too, but I managed to pinch the coin between two of my fingers and pull it out.
He blinked at me as I handed the coin over. “Thank you Miss,” he muttered before quickly putting the coin into the machine. I couldn’t help but frown when I saw that he had picked cappuccino; the stuff tasted even worse coming from there. Either his taste buds were dead or he had a stomach of steel.
It didn’t take all that long but eventually it was my turn to get a drink. On days like this, only a dark mocha would do the trick. However when I finally got the paper cup from the dispenser, I knew something was wrong. Instead of the usual heat that could almost sear my fingers, I felt nothing else but cool paper.
I swore as I slapped at the machine. Why did I even bother helping that boy anyway? As I went to bring back my lukewarm coffee to the psychology lab, I heard the door open. “You still have classes tonight, Enjolras?” Prouvaire asked as he stepped out.
“There hasn’t been an announcement yet,” the golden haired boy replied. “What is the latest update?” he asked Prouvaire.
“Nothing yet....” Prouvaire said. It was then that he saw me. His eyes widened when he saw that I was some paces behind his friend. “The universe has a sick sense of humor,” he said, shaking his head. He pointed to the vending machine. “Did you guys both just come from there?”
“Yes, and he got the last of the hot water,” I said, now getting to the psychology lab door. “You got lucky,” I said, looking at Enjolras.
“Why, what’s the matter with your coffee?” Enjolras asked me.
“Would I be complaining if it was actually warm?” I said. I saw his eyes narrow again; he knew I’d thrown back his question at him.
“Jehan, what is going on out there?” Grantaire asked from inside the psychology lab. As soon as he looked out into the hallway, he laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. He got up almost immediately, rubbing his bottom the entire time. “This is awesome,” he managed to gasp out.
“Awesome? Grantaire---“ Prouvaire began before Grantaire pulled him aside to whisper something in his ear. Prouvaire shook his head and slapped at Grantaire’s arm, muttering something about impending disaster and caffeine addicts, but it was not enough to stop Grantaire from going to the door.
Enjolras glared at him, almost the same way he did at the vending machine. “Do I even want to know what you have to do with this?”
“I’m only broadening your social circle, Enjolras. Hers as well,” Grantaire said cheekily. “Antoine Enjolras, meet Eponine Thenardier, the best research assistant in the Psychology department. Eponine Thenardier, meet Antoine Enjolras. He’s taking political science.”
Enjolras wiped his dusty hand on his pants before setting down his coffee on a chair. “You’re an undergraduate?” he said even as he held his cleaner hand out to me.
“My senior year,” I said as I shook his hand. He raised one of his eyebrows. “Why, aren’t you an undergrad too?”
“I’m in the masteral program,” Enjolras replied, biting the inside of his cheek. I saw how his hands seemed to shake, until he picked up his coffee cup again.
"You don't look it," I said, earning myself another glare. It was at that moment the public address speaker on the wall crackled to life. ‘Attention all students: please report to the main building, second floor right. All rooms must be vacated within fifteen minutes.’
While Grantaire cheered loudly at this sign that classes were suspended, I went back into the psychology lab to retrieve my work, quickly saving it on a flashdrive that I crammed into my jacket pocket. Then I drank down what was left of my coffee in one go, trying not to frown too much at the taste. “You’re right. I should have left earlier,” I said to Prouvaire, who was also gathering up his things.
“And miss being stranded with us?” Prouvaire joked.
I sighed as I looked towards where Grantaire was playing games on his phone while nearby, Enjolras had forgotten his coffee and was trying to make a call. Only Grantaire seemed gleeful about this entire situation; it didn’t look as if he’d be complaining about not being able to have an alcoholic drink for the rest of the night, considering that we would probably be sleeping in a classroom or worse, the school chapel.
I checked my phone and saw it was not even seven in the evening. "Maybe the water will go down before it's too late tonight. Then I can make my way back home."
"Enjolras' place is near here," Grantaire chimed in. "We can all crash there once they let us out of the campus."
Enjolras gave up on making a call and he pocketed his phone. "Did I say you could?"
"Do you have a choice?"
Enjolras rolled his eyes before looking at me. "Where do you stay?"
"Sampaloc," I said. It was thirty minutes away from school on a good day, but maybe three hours on a night like this---assuming that there was still a road to pass. I could envision the entire trip whether by train or by jeep, zooming past the oldest part of this city, then across the murky river, then on to the market district that opened out to an old low-lying 'suburb'. It was not the best location, but it was the one place that could take me.
I did not know what Enjolras must have thought of this word, but judging by the slight scowl on his face he must have known the distance. "You should stay with friends; you might not be able to return there before morning."
"She can stay with us," Grantaire said. "We count as friends too!"
"I meant classmates, someone else---" Enjolras said, shooting him a withering glance before he looked at me again.
I swallowed hard, not sure how to explain the fact that many of my classmates, at least those who I got along with, didn't live in the neighborhood. The one or two who did were best not mentioned at that moment. "It won't be an issue. The water will go down." I insisted.
Enjolras looked at the rain still pouring outside. "We shall see."
I swallowed hard, more so when I saw Prouvaire's despairing look and Grantaire's triumphant grin as we began walking to the main building. What a way to impose on a complete stranger for the night.