The last one.
Veelin's hand trembled as she opened the envelope, taking out a letter printed on thick white paper. She closed her eyes briefly, inhaling sharply, and read the first line.
Dear Miss Brookman,
Thank you for applying for medical residency at Florida State Hospital. Your qualifications are stellar. However, the board has decided not to hire a woman this year...
Veelin folded the letter back into the envelope, trying to hold back tears. Thirty-five applications, and they were all rejected. Her four years of medical school might be fruitless after all.
In the hallway, a group of students walked by. One said in an outraged voice: "Can you believe it? The Cuban fellowship went to that bitch!"
Veelin snapped to attention. She too had applied for the fellowship from the Cuban government, and the rejection letter came weeks ago. The students couldn't have been talking about her. It could only mean one thing.
Veelin found her classmate, Rios, in the study room. As always, Rios was poring over the books. When she saw Veelin, she smiled.
"I was just hoping to see you." Rios said. "I'm going for a swim on the island tonight. I hope you can come."
"Did you get the Cuban fellowship?" Veelin asked outright, unable to keep accusation out of her voice.
"I did." Rios looked embarrassed to admit it. "I was lucky,"
"No you are not. You always had to be better than me at everything!" Veelin blurted out, and quickly regretted. She hated how she sounded: ugly with envy.
Rios had been her chief rival. Veelin could never beat her on an exam. Few spots were open to women in the medical field, and having someone always outperforming her only made Veelin's chances slimmer.
"I'm really sorry, Veelin. I wish you could have got the fellowship too, if only there had been more spots. But I really needed this chance." Rios said.
"You don't have to apologize." Veelin said, deflated.
"Will you come to the swim? There is something I wish to tell you."
Veelin thought about it, and agreed.
Veelin's fiancé Freco picked her up after school. Freco drove a truck, a loud, bulky one. As the truck rumbled down the narrow road, forcing pedestrians and rickshaws to jump out of the way, Freco hooted with pleasure.
"I got another rejection letter." Veelin said.
An old man was pulling a rickshaw piled with bricks across the intersection. Freco blasted the horn. When the old man took too long to make way, Freco accelerated toward him and swerved, giving him such a scare that he fell over.
"Peasants!" Freco cursed. He turned to Veelin, "What did you say, darling?"
"You should slow down a little." Veelin said uneasily. "What if you hit somebody?"
"So what? They don't have the money to buy a pair of shoes, you think they can sue me?"
Veelin wanted to object, but changed her mind. "Freco, can I talk to you about my graduation?"
"That's right, you are graduating. Gonna be Mrs. Freco Riverson soon, right?"
Veelin gathered her courage. Just tell him! "Actually, I was thinking of looking for a job."
Freco's smile dropped away. Veelin saw him clench the steering wheel.
"I thought we are past this nonsense, Veelin." Freco said.
"How's your residency hunt going?"
"Not well. But I can do volunteer work, and next year I can apply again!"
"And here we go!" Freco exclaimed, his face flushing red. "Remember who paid for your tuition, Veelin. You owe me. You said we will be married after your graduation, and that's it!"
"Freco, just one more year. It would mean a lot to me!"
"I will tell you what means something." Freco said, stressing every word. "The debt I wrote off for your father. The marriage contract we drew up then. Do you want me to go to the court and ask them to verify it? Do you?"
Veelin shook her head.
"A lady doctor, how preposterous!" Freco muttered.
Veelin almost did not go swimming that night. She did not want to see Rios and be reminded of the contrast between their futures. However, she wanted to get away from Freco even more.
Veelin met Rios outside her apartment building, and they took a bus to Key West island.
When they arrived at the beach, it was pitch black. The abandoned vacation homes and hotel buildings on the beach looked like apparitions in the darkness. The only artificial lights came from the patrol boat in the sea, which occasionally zipped past, shining a beam of searchlight on the waves.
"It's looking for escapees. People who swim their way to Cuba, across the Florida strait." Rios said.
"Is it even possible? Swimming across the strait?"
"Very few people make it. Most don't. Come on, Veelin!"
Rios treaded into the water, and Veelin went after her.
The darkness was disorienting. Veelin couldn't see where the sky ended and the sea began. She could only see Rios' arms, making steady strokes in the waves.
"Rios, how far do you want to go?"
"Just a little farther."
Veelin finally caught up to Rios. They stayed floating together.
"Veelin," Rios said, "I'm leaving for Cuba soon."
I know that. Veelin thought. You don't have to remind me.
"I told you before that I needed this chance." Rios continued. "It's because I can't live here and be myself. In Cuba I can be more accepted, but here..."
A wave tossed them apart. Rios quickly swam across the distance and grabbed Veelin's hand.
"I just want to tell you before I leave, Veelin. I'm a lesbian. That's why I can't stay in Florida. They would throw me into prison if they find out."
Lesbian? At first the word couldn't ring a bell. Then memories surfaced in Veelin's mind: a vague warning about "immorality" and "corruption"; hushed whispers about a high school teacher; a priest's condemnation of "crimes against nature" at the pulpit.
Veelin gasped. "You! You mean you are..."
"Yes, I am."
Veelin jerked her hand from Rios, and another wave immediately pushed them apart again. Veelin stared at Rios, her stomach tumbling with shock and disgust.
Rios gave Veelin a pale smile. "Let's go back to the shore. It's late."
Veelin kept her distance. Even after they walked up the beach, she refused to look at Rios.
They walked through the town in silence. The abandoned homes occasionally whistled in the wind, but otherwise their footsteps were the only sound in this ghost town.
Suddenly, Veelin heard another sound: the rowdy laughs of young men. Veelin looked up the road. A group of young men were walking out of an abandoned house.
Veelin kept walking, but she was on alert. She was taught to never relax in the company of strange men.
Rios looked tense, too. She walked closer to Veelin.
As they approached the men, Veelin felt six pairs of eyes on her. The men were actually teenage boys, but each was fully grown and much bigger than Veelin. She smelled alcohol on them, and two of the boys were holding broken beer bottles.
Veelin walked faster. She wanted to put as much distance between them as possible.
Then one of the boys called out. "Hey, dykes!"
Veelin's heart jumped. She kept walking, hoping the boys would stop at that.
But the boys caught up to Veelin and Rios, surrounding them. "Look at them, yuck!" They pointed and laughed. One boy went up to Veelin, waving the broken bottle in her face.
"Please--please leave us alone!" Veelin took a step back, frightened. "I don't know what you mean."
Her fright added fuel to the boy's taunts. Their hooting became louder. One made a gesture with his fingers. "Do you do this? How do you do it?" He taunted.
Rios had not said anything until now. She whispered to Veelin: "Run."
Before Veelin could react, Rios stepped forward and slugged the boy in the jaw. The boy fell on his back.
"Run!" Rios shouted. "Go call the police!"
Veelin snapped to action. She sprinted away, pushing aside the one boy blocking her way.
Behind her, she heard Rios struggling with the boys. The shouts and grunts faded as she ran further and further away.
Veelin could not find a phone to call the police. She ran all the way to the bus depot and knocked on the door of the transit office. At first, her pleas fell on deaf ears. It took what seemed like forever before the police was summoned.
Veelin went with the police back to the scene, dreading what she would find.
Rios lay in the street corner. She was badly hurt, and there was broken glass sticking out of her arms. But she was alive. Veelin bent over her, trying to pick the glass out and bandage the wounds.
The police questioned the one boy who was still lingering around. The other boys had disappeared. Preoccupied, Veelin did not pay much attention to them. She was racked with guilt: Rios did not deserve this. Why didn't she stay to help Rios instead of running like a coward?
Her thoughts were interrupted when a police officer grabbed her arm. She realized that something was wrong when she saw his face.
The officer told her sternly: "Miss, you are under arrest."
Stunned, Veelin felt her hands being cuffed. She was thrown into the back of a patrol car, a police officer sitting next to her to guard her. Rios, too, was carried up and thrown into another patrol car.
When Veelin recovered her voice, she screamed: “What's going on? We didn't do anything wrong!”
The patrol car drove past the boy, whom the police didn't arrest after all. He gave Veelin a smirk, and suddenly, Veelin understood.
Veelin spent the night in a lockup facility. The next morning, she appeared in the Court of Clerics before the magistrate-priest.
Veelin had thought she would be questioned first, but nobody had bothered to talk to her. The magistrate-priest was her only hope of clearing things up.
"Moral corruption!" The magistrate read from the arrest order. He frowned, and his mouth twisted around a word as if stuttering. Finally, he pronounced it with disdain: "Homosexuality."
"That's not true, your eminence!" Veelin pleaded. "Rios and I were falsely accused."
"Silence, woman! You will only speak when spoken to!"
Veelin bowed her head.
The magistrate read the rest of the arrest order, and then he asked Veelin: "You claim to be falsely accused. Then why were you two together that night?"
"We went to the ocean to swim, your eminence."
"Why were two girls out at night, alone, without supervision?"
"Because..." Veelin felt very lost. "I didn't know it was wrong."
"For shame! For shame!" The magistrate shook his head. "Good girls don't go out alone. But given this is your first offense, I'm willing to consider an innocence plea--if you can pass the exam."
The exam? Would it be a polygraph test? Nobody would elaborate to Veelin.
Veelin arrived at the exam room, nervous. There was no polygraph machine in the room, only a long table and a priest wearing a white robe.
"Lie down on the table." The priest ordered.
"Wait, what kind of exam is this?" Veelin protested, struggling with her guards. The two bailiffs pushed her to the table, and then, each holding one of her arms, they pinned her down.
The priest reached for her skirt. Veelin's eyes grew wide. She kicked and thrashed, and two more guards came into the room and pinned down her legs. The priest took his time, and every second it lasted, Veelin felt as if he was burning her with a torch.
With a shake of his head, as if he felt sorry for her, the priest pronounced the exam result: "Not a virgin."
Veelin was numb. Rationally, she knew the exam was completely unscientific, and the result a sham. Besides, she and Freco never had sex. But she had no energy left to protest.
That afternoon, Freco made an unexpected visit to Veelin's cell. Remembering that Freco's family was influential, Veelin saw her last hope. She ran to Freco begging for help.
Instead, Freco grabbed her neck and slammed her against the wall. "You whore!" He spat out. "And not only that, but a dyke! When did you lose your virginity? Have you been tumbling with the devil all this time behind my back?"
Veelin grappled with Freco's hands, trying to ease his grip. She couldn't breathe. Her eyes darted to the prison guards, pleading with them for help. But the guards only watched, some with a smirk on their face.
Finally, Freco let go. Veelin slid to the ground, and didn't move again for a long time.
No one came to visit Veelin afterwards. This must be it, Veelin thought, I'm done for. From someone who always took second place to a complete failure, it was too fast, too cruel. But there was nothing Veelin regretted more than how harshly she treated Rios on that night.
She regretted the expression of disgust she wore, the hurtful silence, and--for a moment--the secret glee that she had felt. Rios was a lesbian. When Veelin first learned that, she felt a rush of joy because it meant for once, Rios was less worthy than her.
Veelin stayed in the holding cell for nearly a month. She had not been formally sentenced, but the wheel of justice turned slowly in Florida. So it was a while before Veelin was brought back to the Court of Clerics.
To her relief, Veelin saw Rios at the stand. Rios had become so pale and gaunt, a wisp of a woman. But she still gave Veelin a tiny smile.
Veelin wished she could speak to Rios. More than anything, she wished she could apologize.
The magistrate spoke: "Veelin, you may not know this, but your case has caused quite a stir in all of Florida. The public is outraged, understandably, and demands to know why we have let morality become so loose that young women dare flaunt their sexual deviance. However, since this is your first offense, the court wishes to be lenient. If you plead your innocence and swear to never offend again, we will go easy on you."
This unexpected turn really bothered Veelin. She had been under the impression that the court wanted to punish her as harshly as possible. Why would they go easy on her? Veelin was about to ask the magistrate, but a look from Rios stopped her.
Rios nodded her head very slightly. "Take the chance,” her eyes were saying. "Trust me."
Veelin decided to trust her. "Yes, your eminence. I plead innocence and I swear to never re-offend."
The magistrate nodded. "Very well. Take her away."
Veelin spent two more days in the cell, and finally, finally, the order came to release her. Veelin clutched the release papers to her chest and heaved sighs of joy. She felt as if she was reborn. This time, she promised herself, I will be a better person; I will be Rios' friend.
Her happiness ended abruptly when she saw Freco in front of the prison gate, waiting for her.
"What do you want?" Veelin stepped away from Freco. "After what you did to me, there's no way I can marry you now."
"Then what will you do, girl? You don't have a job, you don't have your own apartment, and your family will probably run you out if you go back to them." Freco taunted.
"I will figure out something. Leave me alone!"
Freco shrugged. "If you come crying to me after, I won't be as generous." Then he tossed something to Veelin. Since Veelin didn't try to catch it, the little bundle fell to the ground.
Veelin watched Freco driving away in his truck. Then she picked up the bundle Freco had tossed. It was a green jacket wrapped around a roll of newspaper.
Veelin read the newspaper first. She had only scanned the headline when it hit her. Suddenly, it felt as if her heart had stopped pumping.
Rios Freeman, convicted of moral crime to the first degree, executed by hanging.
--Freeman confessed to corrupting the second defendant in the case, taking full responsibility for their "night of escapade".
That's right, the stiffest penalty for homosexuality is death. How could Veelin have forgot?
She remembered Rios' look at the trial, how Rios silently encouraged her to take the plea. Rios must have known what was coming: she had sacrificed herself to save Veelin.
For a moment Veelin was stumbling in the darkness. The people and buildings all became whispering shadows, cornering her. She heaved huge sobs, her shoulders shaking.
Then gradually, her cries stopped. She unclenched her hands from the jacket and spread it out on her arm. It was Rios' jacket, but she knew there must be something else in there.
In a secluded corner of the park, Veelin finished reading the note that she found in the seams of the jacket. She crumpled it, tucked it away in her pocket, close to her heart, and walked away.
When Veelin arrived at the beach on the Key West island, it was once again pitch black. This time, however, the darkness seemed more alive and threatening, as if it wanted to swallow her whole. Veelin stared into it, as she remembered Rios' last words:
Please forgive me for the trouble my indiscretion has caused. I want to make it up to you, so I made a deal with Freco. He will buy out the magistrate and get you leniency. The condition is that I take full responsibility. I've decided to do it.
Please do not hate Freco too much. He still wants to save you, and this deal will bankrupt him.
And here's the real thing I've always wanted to tell you but never had the courage to, even out in the sea that night: I love you.
Veelin treaded into the water. In the darkness, she watched for the patrol boat. Its faint light illuminated only a small streak of the vast ocean. If she blended into the waves, she could escape it.
One hundred and sixty-six kilometers to Cuba. Over fifty hours of continuous swim across shark and jellyfish infested waters. Thousands of people fleeing Florida attempt it every year, and few if any ever succeeds.
Veelin stroked into the open water, the waves parting before her. Very soon, she disappeared into the darkness.