#BookbedFictory 036: ‘All That Matters’

by Celestine Trinidad
This year’s Fictory is in partnership with BRUMULTIVERSE, a fictional multiple universe with dimensions, realms and parallel realities where amazing stories happen. All fics use the prompt: “The Main Character wakes up on the first day of school, late for their classes in a university to which they don’t remember enrolling.”

Content warnings: mentions of death of a parent, descriptions of a cadaver

When Alyssa woke that morning, the first thing she noticed was how warm it was.

She had gone to bed the night before buried underneath her blankets, shivering in the cold, because her roommate, Christie, had turned down the temperature of the air conditioner in their room to its lowest setting. Alyssa thought that in the first place, there was really no need to turn on the aircon anyway, because it was August and the middle of the rainy season already, but Christie was used to having the aircon on at home all the time. On any other day Alyssa would have stood her ground on the matter until she and her roommate reached a compromise, an agreement where both of them would be happy—or miserable. At least it would be fair. But she had other things on her mind that night, and she really didn’t have the energy to argue, so she said nothing.

Maybe it’s a good thing Sam isn’t here, she thought before falling asleep. If he ever finds out about this, I’ll never hear the end of it.

But this only brought a weird twinge of pain in her chest, instead of bringing relief.

Right now, though, it was actually quite warm. Maybe Christie had noticed that she was cold, so she decided on her own to spare her roommate. Well, that was nice of her—

Alyssa stared at her surroundings. She closed her eyes, and opened them again. She rubbed her eyes. But even after she did all this, nothing changed.

She wasn’t in her dorm room in the University of Saint Rita, the medical school in Manila she was supposed to be attending that year. Christie wasn’t there in the room, and her roommate’s bed was nowhere to be found, too. Alyssa’s bed was different, too. It was a little bit bigger, and the mattress and pillows were softer, somehow, more comfortable. Her bed sheets and pillows, instead of the white and gray ones she had brought from home, were now a bright shade of fuchsia pink, her favorite shade. 

She looked down at herself. Well, she was still wearing her pajamas from last night, at least. She got up and walked over to the study table at the corner of the room. Her laptop was still on it, but there was now a book shelf above the table, filled with textbooks. Wheater’s Functional Histology. Gray’s Anatomy. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology. She counted them, running the spines under the tip of her index finger. All her new Medicine textbooks were all still there, but she knew she had piled them onto a small stack on the floor beside her desk last night, because she was pretty sure her room didn’t have a bookshelf last night.

She made her way towards the window. She pulled open the curtains—which were the same shade of pink as her bed sheets—and sunlight came streaming in. Outside were trees—acacia, narra, calachuchi. She could also hear the twittering of birds. This really wasn’t what she remembered the view was like outside of her room, because all she could see outside their window before was the street and a couple of other apartment buildings. 

She closed the curtains, and went over to the door. It opened to a hallway, with doors on each side. A few other female students were lingering in the halls, and some of those who passed her by stared at her. They were wearing uniforms, but it wasn’t the all-white uniform of St. Rita Med; this instead consisted of a white blouse, a blue tie and a blue checkered skirt of a similar shade, and over that was a dark blue jacket. 

She returned inside, and threw her closet door open. Inside, mixed with her other clothes, were several sets of the same uniform. Hanging on a hook on the door was her ID.

She peered closely at it. It still did say Allisana Ferrer Silvano, Medicine, MD-PhD in Molecular Science. Her photo was still the same. But now, instead of University of Saint Rita Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, it now said: Berkeley-Reagan University College of Medicine.

Berkeley-Reagan University? She had never heard of this school before; much less remember enrolling in it. And the address on her ID said it was located in Taguig. St. Rita was supposed to be in Manila.

What in the world was going on?

She took her phone, and opened her planner app. She still had the same subjects on her schedule, but there were key differences from what she remembered putting into the app a few days before. Instead of Physiology at 8 a.m., her first class was now Biochemistry…

At 7 a.m.

She glanced at the wall clock above her door.

It was already 6:58 a.m.

“Oh shit,” she blurted out, because after everything that had already happened that morning, this was by far the worst of it. 

Well, her first day in med school was certainly off to a great start. 

***

She managed to shower in under ten minutes (which certainly was record time for her), brush her hair, and apply BB cream on her face and tinted lip balm to her lips. Then she made a run for it. Her first class was in the building across the dorms, in Gumamela Hall. At least, that was what she could figure out from the school website.

Maybe this was a dream, she thought. Maybe it was just like one of those anxiety dreams she had sometimes, where she was late for class, but when she finally arrived in her classroom, she would realize she was completely naked. Well, going to class without her usual makeup was equivalent to being half-naked (she didn’t even have time to fix her eyebrows, the horror!), so maybe this was really all just a dream.

But the dream didn’t seem to be ending anytime soon, so she kept running.

When she reached the room of her first class, she saw that the only door to it was already closed. She glanced at her watch. She was already fifteen minutes late. She had to go in, though, so it looked like she had no choice but to disrupt the class. 

She took a deep breath and reached for the doorknob—

At the same time someone else did. 

“Ah, sorry!” she cried out, letting go of the person’s hand at once. “You go ahead—”

“Alyssa?”

She looked up at the one who spoke, and seeing who it was, she felt her heart lift.

“Is this for real?” Samuelson Rivera said, his gray eyes wide. His light brown hair hung over his face in messy waves, as they usually did when he didn’t have time to put gel on it. Which was, honestly, all of the time, because he was always running late. 

“Sam,” Alyssa said. “Oh my God, I’m so glad you’re here. Why—”

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing,” Sam breathed. “Alyssa Silvano, actually late for a class?” 

She blinked at him. “Oh,” she said. “So you’re not surprised I’m here?”

“Huh?” He frowned at this. “Why would I be? We’re classmates.”

“We…we are?”

His eyebrows furrowed. “Hey. Are you okay?” He leaned towards her, peering closely at her face. “Hmm. You didn’t have time to do your eyebrows. That bad, huh? So that’s why you didn’t call me this morning. You must have had a really rough night.”

Alyssa turned away, putting her hands on her forehead to hide her eyebrows. “Shut it, Sam,” she said. Her earlier feeling of relief at seeing him switched to something she was more familiar with: annoyance. “We don’t have time for this. Let’s just go to class.” She reached for the door again.

“Wait.” Sam laid a hand on her arm, gently. “Was it because of…that?”

“What do you mean?”

“The lab session later,” he said. “In Anatomy.”

“What? No.” Her eyes widened, because she did have to admit, she had forgotten all about that. She shook her head, but now that he had mentioned it, that familiar knot in the pit of her stomach had reappeared, and she suddenly felt cold all over. 

“I’m not worried about it,” she said. “Really.”

Sam was still frowning at her, but he let go of her arm. 

Alyssa opened the door, keeping her eyes focused in front. She hoped he wouldn’t ask her any more questions, because she really didn’t have any answers, herself.


Everyone kept saying that Sam was her best friend, but Alyssa had always disagreed. Sure, they had known each other all their lives, for their families lived next door to each other. His late mother and Alyssa’s mom had been best friends since high school, and they had even gotten pregnant with Alyssa and Sam around the same time.  They had never once left Zamboanga City, their hometown. They went to the same kindergarten, grade school, high school, and college. 

Okay, maybe she was his best friend.

But he was honestly the most annoying, most infuriating, person she had ever known.

He was flippant, lazy, and he was perpetually late for everything. If it wasn’t for Alyssa calling him every morning, he would never make it to class on time. He often fell asleep in the middle of class, in church, during parties; he would even fall asleep in the middle of conversations with her.

Even awake, though, he was still annoying, for his favorite pastime was teasing Alyssa and playing pranks on her. On their very first day in elementary, he taped an air horn to her chair so when she sat on it, the sound made everyone jump, even their teacher. He hid plastic cockroaches inside her things, which always, always freaked her out whenever she found them.

In turn, her favorite pastime was to scold him about his failings. She always had a ready retort whenever he teased her, and she made sure she had the last word. Admittedly, she bossed him around all the time, because she found that no matter how much he grumbled and complained about it (Alyssa “Slave Driver” Silvano was one of his nicknames for her), he always did what she asked him to.

Despite everything, they still stuck with each other through the years. They had many other friends and dated other people, and moved in different circles, but they still ended up with each other, somehow. They commuted to and from school together. They talked for hours on the phone, studied in each other’s houses during hell weeks, and gave each other advice. During his mother’s illness, she took turns with him at the hospital. She also stayed up with him during her wake, and stayed by his side during the funeral.

But for the first time in years, because of med school, they were supposed to finally be apart from each other. She had enrolled in St. Rita for their MD-PhD in Molecular Science track, while he stayed in Universidad Catolica for their MD-MPh track. They had no choice, because no other schools offered these tracks.

But this was not true, apparently, because they were here now, in this strange school. 

They now sat eating lunch in the university’s mess hall, and he was going on about a game he was playing, which she would usually be interested in, but this time she wasn’t listening. She was busy reading about Berkeley-Reagan University on her phone. 

“It says here this school was founded in 1951,” she said, absently picking at her food while reading. “It’s weird why we’ve never heard of it until now.”

“Huh? What are you going on about?” He was staring at her now, slack-jawed.

“This university,” she said. “Berkeley-Reagan.”

Sam still looked bewildered. “You’re talking about BRU?” He pronounced the letters together, then amended, “Okay, sorry. B-R-U. You’re going to tell me off about that again.” His frown deepened. “What do you mean we’ve never heard about it before? It’s one of the premier universities in the country, and the only one that has both double degrees we want. Getting into this university was all we could talk about the past two years, because otherwise we’d have gone to different schools to get the track we wanted.”

“Uh, yeah,” Alyssa said. She avoided his eyes. “Right.”

“Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to take a nap first, or—” 

“No. It’s fine.” Alyssa glanced at her watch. “Class is starting soon. Let’s go.”

He rolled his eyes heavenward. “We still have fifteen minutes. Why are you always in a hurry?” But he got up, and took both their trays and deposited them on the cart in the middle of the mess hall. They went out of the hall and rode an e-jeep back to the Calachuchi Building, where the laboratory classes for Medicine were going to be held. 

It took her some minutes to realize that he was silent during their ride back to the building, for she was deep in thought as well. She looked up at him, and found that he was looking at her, that expression of concern still on his face.

She looked away. She kept her eyes on the floor as she said, “Sam, I’m fine, okay.”

He didn’t say anything as they got down from the jeep. When they reached the entrance to the building, he stopped before the door, and looked back at her.

 “Hey,” he said. “Do me a favor. If you’re feeling faint later or something, tell me, okay?”

“Nothing’s going to happen.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. 

“Alyssa.” His tone was still gentle, but it was firm, and brooked no argument. “I mean it. Tell me when you do. You might faint again.”

“I’m not going to, okay—”

“I know, I know, maybe you won’t.” He held up his hands. “But if ever you do, I want to be there to catch you. Okay?”

She stared at him, her eyes wide. She felt heat rising up her cheeks.

“I don’t want you to hit your head again,” he said. He put a hand on her shoulder. “Promise me, Alyssa.”

She finally nodded. “Fine,” she said. “But…you don’t need to care so much about me.”

He only replied to that when they were already standing right outside the Anatomy laboratory, just as the bell was ringing. He said it so softly, that she almost didn’t catch it.

“I know I don’t need to,” he murmured. “But I do.” 

His lips turned up in a smile—not a teasing one, as was his usual, but a gentle, sincere smile. “You know I always do.”

She looked away, still feeling the warmth on her cheeks, and now her heart was racing, as well.


When they entered the laboratory, the smell was the first thing braced herself against.

The pungent smell of formaldehyde pervaded the air, and it was a smell she was familiar with because of their Biology classes in pre-Med. But it was mixed with something else, a more familiar smell, and actually kind of pleasant—mint, she realized. She took a deep breath. Maybe because the bodies were preserved this time, she would be fine. Maybe there wouldn’t be that smell again—

And it hit her.

That smell, like raw meat.

Despite what she said to Sam earlier, she suddenly felt faint, and she swayed on her feet. She was already bracing herself for it, but just like that first time she had ever encountered a dead body, she thought she was ready for it, but turned out she wasn’t.

Maybe she would never be, she thought bitterly.

She had promised that she would tell him though, so she leaned over to him and whispered, “Okay. You were right. I don’t feel so good.”

He only nodded, but the worry was plain in his gray eyes. He put his arm around her, and she allowed herself to rest on him. “There’s an empty table near the door,” he said. “Let’s sit there. If ever you need to step out, it’ll be easier.”

She tried to respond to that, but even nodding felt like an effort.

He steered her towards one of the steel tables. On it was a cadaver, covered with a green plastic sheet. She sank down on one of the chairs around the table. He sat down on the chair beside her, and then took her hand. He continued to hold her hand all throughout the class. 

She was okay with being so near the cadaver, so it wasn’t the sight of it that made her react this way, she knew. Logically, too, her brain knew there was nothing to be afraid of, either. But she had reacted this way too, that first time, and just as she had feared last night, she still had not gotten over it.


The first time it happened was during an autopsy she and Sam had observed in. His Tito Gabriel, his mother’s brother, was a forensic pathologist, and they had managed to convince him to allow them to assist him in his work, in preparation for med school.  

She had watched countless educational videos and TV series showing autopsies, and she knew she wasn’t squeamish. She loved watching horror movies with Sam, and she never once flinched in any of the gory scenes. She thought she was going to be okay.

But that day, she realized that being in an autopsy was different from watching one. It wasn’t even that she found it disgusting or anything, either. The body Tito Gabriel was working on had passed away only a couple of hours before, so she knew it hadn’t really begun to decompose just yet. It just reminded her of something else, though, and it only made her uncomfortable at first, until the feeling began to grow. 

As Tito Gabriel made the incision and started to cut away at flesh, Alyssa finally realized what the smell reminded her of.

It reminded her of the meat hanging over the stalls in the wet market, or the meat she herself cut into pieces when it was her turn to cook for her family. This horrified her, because she knew that this had been an actual person and not just a piece of meat, but her senses just kept telling her otherwise.

And that was when the world around her started to spin. She tried to take deep breaths, but the room suddenly felt so small, and the walls seemed to press down upon her chest. Beside her, Sam did not seem to mind, and he was even cutting the ribs using the rib cutter Tito Gabriel had handed him. Tito Gabriel was explaining something, but she could not understand what he was saying. Spots had already formed in her vision, and they were beginning to cover everything else in sight. 

The next thing she knew, she was lying on a bed in the university infirmary. Sam was at her side, pressing an ice pack to her head.

“You suddenly blacked out,” he said. “Sorry I didn’t notice in time. You hit your head on the steel table. The doctor’s still checking if you have a concussion.”

She sat up suddenly at that, but this made the room spin again, so she lay back down. “Oh, God. This is super embarrassing. Tell Tito Gabriel I’m so sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said. “He’s actually more concerned about you. Alyssa, what happened?”

She hesitated for a moment, but eventually, she told him. She thought he was going to tease her about this, but he only listened quietly to her as she spoke.

“Tito Gabriel says it’s a normal reaction,” he said, after she had finished. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But not everyone actually faints at an autopsy,” she said. “And I was expecting to be scared, or something. But this…I wasn’t expecting this, at all.” She let out a breath in frustration. “Maybe I shouldn’t be a doctor, after all.”

Sam’s eyes narrowed at that. He pressed the ice pack a little more firmly on her head.

“Hey!” Alyssa winced. “What was that for?”

“No, Alyssa,” he said. “If you want to be a doctor, you can be one. This is just a challenge. And if there’s anything that I both admire and am annoyed at about you, it’s that you never back down from a challenge.” 

He smiled at her, and surprisingly there was no trace of irony in it. “And I’ll be there for you, in case it happens again.”

But when they decided to enroll in different med schools, she thought he wouldn’t be able to keep this promise. She didn’t need him to, anyway. She would be fine on her own. She had to be. She had to be strong enough on her own, because other people can do it, and she just had to be force herself to be strong enough. 

But standing here now in the room, holding his hand, she was just so glad that he was here with her, after all. 


He handed her a small bottle containing some coffee beans. 

“Tito Gabriel said that might help,” he said. 

“Thanks,” she said weakly. She took a whiff of the coffee beans, and they did help. The room stopped spinning after a while, but her hands were still cold. 

Their professor finally entered the room. Dr. Estrada was a small woman with salt-and-pepper hair arranged neatly into a bun, but her voice was loud and booming and brimming with mirth, and she really didn’t need a microphone for everyone to hear her.

“Good morning, everyone,” she said. “Welcome to your first Clinical Anatomy laboratory session. As you know, our lessons will mostly revolve around cadaver dissections for the next few weeks. But we’re not going to start with that today, yet. Today, we start with a memorial ceremony.”

Alyssa sat up straighter at this, putting down the bottle of coffee beans on the table. This wasn’t in her original schedule in St. Rita. From what other people have told her about Anatomy classes there, they always went straight to dissections on the very first day.  

Dr. Estrada went to the door of the classroom, and opened it. She ushered inside three people—a middle-aged man, an older woman, and a young man who looked no older than twenty. 

“Class, I would like to introduce to you Tomas Santino, Natividad Rosario, and Adam Lee,” Dr. Estrada said. “They are the relatives of some of the people who have so kindly donated their bodies for medical education.” She gestured towards the cadavers in the room. “I have invited their loved ones here to say a few words about them.”

This was the first time she had ever heard of such a ceremony for an Anatomy class, but it was really a welcome surprise. The three talked about the lives of their relatives, what they were like when they were still alive, the things they liked and did, and how they affected everyone around them. 

“It was really hard, seeing my mother struggle with her illness,” Adam Lee, the teenage boy, said. Projected on the screen now was a middle-aged woman, smiling like she had her whole life still ahead of her. Below the photo was the name: Amanda Lee. “She was only 42. She was still young, people said, and she wasn’t supposed to have cancer. But I don’t know, whatever age they are, no one should ever have it.” His eyes glistened with tears, and there was a hard edge to his tone.

Sam’s grip on her suddenly tightened, and she looked sharply at him. His hand was now the one that was shaking. 

She realized how hearing this must be hitting him. His own mother had been struck by an illness when they were still in high school. The doctors weren’t quite sure what was happening to her. But she was too young, they said, too young for her to be dying, but she was. And eventually she passed away from it.

In front of everyone else, Sam was always so calm and collected, and he didn’t even cry during her funeral. But on the nights of the wake, when he was alone with Alyssa, he would break down in front of her. The sight of him crying, night after night, was something she would never forget.

“Hey,” she whispered. “You okay?”

 “Yeah—” he started to say, his eyes unfocused, then, as his vision seemed to clear, he shook his head. “No. No, I’m not. It…it reminds me a bit too much of Mom.”

She nodded. “I know. It reminded me of Tita Diana, too.” She sighed. “I miss her.”

“Thanks. I’m glad you’re here, Alyssa.” He sidled over closer to her, and leaned his head on her shoulder. She felt her heart race again at this. He had done this a thousand times before, ever since they were kids and in front of other people, but this felt…different. 

Different, because she finally realized something that had been true all these years, but she had never really thought about, until they were finally apart.

She realized that she had been missing him, all this time.

And that she never wanted to be away from him, ever again.

“Y-your head is heavy,” she stammered, in an effort to try and cover up the feelings this epiphany had brought her.

“That’s because I’m really smart,” he retorted. His grip on her relaxed after a while, and he stopped shaking.

On the stage, Adam Lee continued his story. “But though her life was short, it had meant so much to all of us who loved her. And she wanted her death to mean something, too, and I would like to thank you all for giving her this chance.” He smiled through his tears. “She was a teacher, too, you see, and even beyond her death, she wanted to continue to teach. And here she is now, teaching you, too. We know you will all be better doctors because of what she decided to do. We still grieve for her, but this lessens our pain somehow, thinking of all the other people she will be helping, through you.”

Alyssa looked at the sheet-wrapped body in front of them, and realized that the name on it was Amanda Lee, Adam’s mother. She whispered a silent prayer for her, and for all the cadavers of their class. There was still that smell that so disturbed her, but whenever she noticed it she thought of Amanda Lee’s photo when she was still alive, and that helped remind her that no, they were more than lumps of flesh, or objects they were supposed to learn from.

They were people, people who decided to help students like her, even beyond their death.

Sam squeezed her hand, and she looked at him again. They smiled at each other. 

She also realized then that that whole time, she had been focusing on the wrong thing. She was only thinking of proving herself capable on her own, when that wasn’t what she was in med school for. She was there to be the best doctor she could be, for her future patients. And needing support wasn’t a sign of weakness at all. He himself hadn’t been afraid to show her his weakness, and never hesitated to lean on her, when needed.

It was okay to ask for help, especially from someone she trusted, from someone she knew would always be there for her. 

She squeezed his hand back.

She still didn’t know why she was here, but she was really, really glad she was.


At the end of their classes that day, he walked her back to the West Wing of the Berkeley Halls, her dorm building. 

“Sam, what if…” She fidgeted with her bag as she walked. “What if things had turned out differently? What if I had gone to St. Rita? And you stayed in UC? You ever think about that sometimes?”

Sam raised an eyebrow at her. “I never really thought about it. I had always kind of thought we’d always be together.” Then he smirked, suddenly. “I guess you’d probably miss me so much, so I feel really sorry for you. Your life would be so boring.”

She rolled her eyes. “You’d probably miss me more. You’d be always late for class, for one.”

He laughed at that. “Well, you’re right about that.” His eyes softened. “Anyway, we’re here. And we made it through our first day. That’s all that matters, right?”

“Yeah,” Alyssa said. “That’s true, I guess.” She stopped at the door to her dorm building. “Goodbye, Sam. I mean—” She smiled at him. “See you tomorrow.”

“See you tomorrow,” he said, with a smile as wide as hers. 

That night, when she went to bed, she thought about why she was here, and how she ended up here. She still didn’t have any answers. 

But she was sure of one thing: she really enjoyed her first day here in BRU. And she hoped that the next day, when she woke again, she would still be studying here.

Or maybe it didn’t have to be here, either. They just had to be together.

That was all that mattered, after all. ☁️

Celestine Trinidad is a licensed physician (particularly, a pathologist) based in the Philippines. In her spare time, she writes fiction of various genres, including speculative fiction, romance, crime, young adult, and children’s short stories.
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