The school-fair week opened with a bang—literally. With a volley of firecrackers, to be precise, along with a burst of confetti and a resounding cheer from the students, almost before the principal could finish his speech. The fact that they still had classes in the morning did nothing to dampen the students’ festive mood. The fair had well and truly come to South Crescent High School.
The senior class’ Physical Arrangements Committee elected to go classic Hollywood this year, working with the theme “An Af-FAIR to Remember.” A huge poster announcing the school-fair week, which resembled the movie poster for the old, romantic film that served as inspiration, was hung across the front gate. Inside school grounds, two long tarps hung from each side of the main building’s front entrance, with one side showing Deborah Kerr and the other Cary Grant in an iconic scene from the movie. Gold and silver streamers arched above the doors between the posters.
Inside, gold stars were laid on the floors à la the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Posters of scenes from the movie hung on the walls, interspersed with iconic Hollywood celebrities with the faces of school officials and faculty Photoshopped over them, to the faculty’s endless amusement. Black cardboard movie clappers, film reels, director’s chairs and bullhorns adorned the doors. Gold and silver tinsel fluttered over hallways, twisted around banisters, and draped from tree branches and balconies. Gold and silver stars twinkled from every nook and cranny. At the entrance of the quadrangle where the freshmen’s and the school clubs’ booths had been set up, cardboard cutouts of a stylized, black and white Empire State Building—another icon from the film—stood like sentinels.
“Wow,” Yumi breathed as she, Fran and Lisette walked through the glammed-up corridors. “Can you imagine all the work the seniors put into this? I don’t think I’m looking forward to when we’re seniors, and it’s our turn to try and top this.”
Fran pushed her glasses up and nodded. “I know, right? Maybe we can choose a theme like ‘A Day in the Life of an Ordinary Student.’ That way, we won’t have to decorate anything.”
Yumi smiled at that. She was relieved that Fran had finally stopped looking like a tragic specter drifting through the halls, although she was still pretty subdued. So far, nothing was forthcoming from Angelo, but Yumi knew better now than to doubt him. His feelings for Fran were the real deal; in fact, Yumi couldn’t wait to see the expression on her friend’s face when he finally made his move.
But she would wait. After all, it wasn’t her place to ruin Angelo’s surprise for Fran.
If anyone was looking like a ghost of herself, it was Lisette. Yumi had expected her to be practically crackling with excitement and determination, since both their class and the Homemakers’ Club would be selling her cupcakes. After some mean relations had suggested that Lisette didn’t have enough talent to deserve to go to cooking school this summer, she’d set out to prove them wrong by selling as many of her pastries as possible. She worked tirelessly for the past two weeks, and now that the real competition was beginning, she should have been charging through the halls, double-checking and triple-checking her products. Instead, she was plodding along beside them, alternating between glancing anxiously at the people around them and staring at her feet. She didn’t even seem to be aware of the school’s transformation. Yumi and Fran exchanged worried glances, but in the past, whenever they asked their friend what was going on, Lisette proved exceptionally reticent.
Maybe if I tried again? “Um, Lisette,” Yumi began, “are you okay?”
Lisette jerked her head up and gave her a brittle grin. “Yeah! Yeah, I’m okay. Why do you ask?”
“Well, you’ve been a bit—”
Just then, a group of junior boys passed by. “Hey, rich girl, where’s your house boy? He planning on showing his face today?” one of them yelled at Lisette, smiling in an unpleasant way.
“Maybe he hasn’t finished cleaning her toilets yet,” another said, making the group laugh raucously.
A rush of color flooded Lisette’s cheeks. “Shut up, you jerks. He’ll come, you’ll see. He’s not going to be cowed by a bunch of superficial losers like you,” she barked at them, fists clenched around the strap of her bag.
This only made the boys laugh harder, and Lisette stalked all the way to their classroom, glowering at the floor, while Fran and Yumi jogged to keep up with her. “What…what was that…all about?” Fran panted, sinking into a nearby chair when they finally reached their room.
“But what were they talking—”
“I said it’s nothing, okay?” Lisette snapped, slamming her notebook on her desk. When both Yumi and Fran stared at her, she made a face and slumped into her desk. “I’m sorry, guys. I know you’re worried but…look, I’m just tired from baking and packing cupcakes all night, that’s all.”
Fran’s gaze shifted questioningly to Yumi’s hands. Lisette caught the look, too, but before panicked refusal could seize her, Yumi shook her head. “No, I won’t read your threads, Lisette. You don’t have to worry about me touching you,” she said quietly. “Whatever you’re going through, it’s up to you if you want to tell us or not. But no matter what, we want you to know we’re here for you.”
“All the way,” Fran added, smiling.
Lisette’s eyes shimmered with tears. “Aw, man,” she said, sniffling. “I’ve wanted to tell you guys so many times, but it isn’t my secret to share. It’s Erik’s. But since those bozos found out anyway and it’s all over the school now, I’m afraid he won’t—” She groaned in frustration, digging both hands into her short hair. “Ugh, whatever. I’ll tell you guys after the parade, okay? Anyway, what about you, Yumi? I thought you and Ren came to school together.”
“He asked Ate Tala and me yesterday if we wanted to go to school together but, well…I didn’t want to get in their way,” she said with a dejected shrug. Especially since Ate’s been keeping an eye on me ever since I overstayed my welcome in her boyfriend’s arms, she didn’t feel like adding.
Just then, the rest of their classmates, including Ren, came pouring into the room. Fran only had time for a rueful “we’re a depressing trio, aren’t we?” before their teacher arrived. As Yumi took her chair in front of Ren’s, she couldn’t help but sneak a glance at him, and found him gazing back at her with a chilly look in his eyes. “Where were you this morning?” he demanded.
Yumi blinked. “I—”
Then the teacher began her lecture, and there were no more chances to talk.
Preparations for the school parade began right after lunch. The parade, which would circle a couple of blocks and head up and down the district’s main street, would give the different sections a chance to promote their booths to the rest of the town. As the boys went off to set up their float outside—really a pushcart with a platform decorated with swirly colors, cardboard fruits, cottony clouds and glitter—the girls stayed in their homeroom to don their costumes and chatter excitedly.
Except for Yumi, who spent a good ten minutes just gaping at her costume, which consisted of a swishy skirt made of shiny, white fabric, with a floaty overskirt of white chiffon and a golden belt with a fringe of colorful beads; a white strip of cloth that was supposedly the other half of her costume; and more white chiffon veils, golden bands and multicolored, crepe paper flowers.
When they finally forced her into the costume and stood her in front of the mirror in the girls’ washroom, the sight stunned her all over again. The skirt, overskirt and belt rode low on her hips, while a good portion of her upper half was left bare by the white bandeau—not enough to bring the school board down on their heads but much more than Yumi was used to exposing. Floaty veils drifted across her shoulders and down her wrists, attached to her arms via golden bands. Flowers were scattered all over her top and skirt, and her brown curls were captured, pinned at the top of her head with more flowers, and kept in place by an entire can of hairspray, with several tendrils tickling her nape. Colorful bead chokers and strappy white sandals completed the outfit.
The girls stepped back and admired their handiwork. Fran, who was a member of the Costume Committee, actually looked teary-eyed. “Oh Yumi, you look so beautiful.”
“Um, isn’t this costume missing something? Like several yards of cloth?” Yumi stared down at herself, covering her drafty midriff with her hands.
“No, no, it’s meant to look like that,” said another girl as she fussed over the flowers and veils. “You’re supposed to be a deity who inspires thoughts of romance and seduction. Besides, you’ve got the figure for it, Yumi, so go ahead and flaunt it.”
“Oh, yeah,” another girl agreed. “Even if the guys never noticed you before, they’ll definitely notice you now.”
“But why can’t I wear one of those cute, comfy outfits you’re wearing?”
Yumi pointed to the stretchy white T-shirts, tie-dyed skirts and beaded jewelry the girls were all wearing. This time, it was Natalie who reassured her. “You’ll wear your tie-dyed outfit tomorrow, but for today and Friday, you have to wear this one. And on Saturday, you’ll wear the red one.”
Yumi glanced at the red costume hanging from the window frame and gulped, making Natalie laugh. “Relax, Yumi, you look fantastic. Great work, everyone. Congratulations.”
“I look like a piña colada,” she whined, but since everyone had moved away, only Fran and Lisette heard her.
“You look like a Caribbean goddess, not a tropical drink,” Fran corrected, pushing her glasses up her nose. “Although, this costume looks like the outfit Akane wore in the theater episode of Nobara no Akane-chan. When I saw it, I just knew it would look cute on you.”
Yumi saw the sparkle of fan-girl obsession returning to her friend’s eyes for the first time in ages, and decided she’d wear the costume without complaint if it cheered Fran up. “So I’m cosplaying, huh?” she said with a sigh.
Lisette grinned. “Definitely cosplaying. I just wonder what Ren will do when he sees you in this.”
As it turned out, what Ren did was take one look at her and explode. “That’s what you’re wearing?!”
Yumi winced. His voice had been loud enough to draw the attention of the few people who hadn’t been staring at her already, ever since she and her friends stepped out into the school’s courtyard to join the rest of their section in the parade line. The sensation of all those eyes on her felt like itchy, little weights on her skin, and it was all she could do not to sink into the ground in a puddle of white chiffon and cold sweat. Honestly, Ren’s horror-stricken reaction was just making things worse.
“Um, yeah,” she said, lowering her voice in the hope that he’d take the hint and follow suit. “Fran and the others designed it. Today’s the first time I saw the entire thing myself.”
Ren continued to scowl at her. “Where’s the rest of it?”
“There’s no ‘rest of it,’ you dork. This is the entire thing.” She gestured at the costume, her temper beginning to spark over his obvious displeasure. Sure, he didn’t think much of her appearance, but he really ought to stop looking so appalled now. Didn’t he care about how Fran and the rest of the Costume Committee might feel about his disparaging their creation?
He gritted his teeth. “No. No way. You are not traipsing around town looking like that.” He untied the tie-dyed sarong he wore like a belt over his white T-shirt and beige cargo shorts. Then he wrapped her securely in the colorful cloth, spreading it out so that it covered as much of her as possible, while she blushed and tried to ignore the feeling of his hands on her skin.
When he stepped back, looking satisfied, the chorus of male groans took them both by surprise. “Come on, dude, no fair,” one of the guys protested. “You ruined my photo of her.”
“Take that thing off her, Navarro.”
“Yeah. We want Yumi, our Goddess of Love.”
Before Ren could respond with something other than an inarticulate growl, Natalie tapped him on the shoulder. “Ren, I understand how you feel, but the Marketing Committee would like me to tell you to stop acting like Yumi’s jealous boyfriend. At least, until the parade is over.”
Yumi and Ren turned matching shades of crimson. He refused to budge, though, declaring he’d take his sarong off her when the parade exited the campus and not a moment sooner. Yumi watched as he argued with their class president, who was later joined by the Marketing Committee head. Nobody else seemed to notice the sad resignation that flitted briefly over Natalie’s face, and Yumi was relieved that Ren was acting normal around her. Although she thought Natalie had the wrong idea, she knew only too well how it felt to watch the boy you like pay attention to another girl. But since she couldn’t very well surrender to the urge to give Natalie a commiserating hug, she just sighed and moved away to take her position beside their float.
The viciously spoken word made her ears prick up. Looking around, she saw the three girls who’d set her up walking nearby, accompanied by the rest of their section. Their booth theme was “Fair Games,” and they were all costumed as carnival characters—clowns, acrobats, jugglers, even a ringmaster in a red coat and top hat. Their float consisted of a cart with a colorful wheel placed upon it, in front of which stood a girl in a sequined outfit and a guy brandishing a bunch of fake knives.
The leader of the Terrible Threesome shot her a venomous look. “Check out the witch, pretending to be the Goddess of Sluts,” she announced to her friends in a carrying voice.
Yumi shrank into herself. Memories of last year’s bullying flashed through her head, and she wished she wasn’t dressed so conspicuously. I knew this Goddess of Love thing was a mistake, she thought, feeling like the worst fraud ever.
Then Ren was in front of her, shielding her from the trio’s view. The next moment, Yumi’s entire section had gathered around her in a defensive phalanx, returning the girls’ nasty looks ten-fold.
“Listen, you hear that? I think I hear the sound of someone being jealous. It sounds a lot like ‘meow meow,’” Lisette said to Fran, cupping a hand at her ear and cocking her head toward the Terrible Threesome. Fran covered her mouth with her fingers and snickered.
“You’d know a lot about witches, huh, Pauline?” another of her classmates jeered.
“Don’t worry about them.” Still another of Yumi’s classmates put a loyal hand on her shoulder. “We heard about how they set you up in the garden. We won’t let them get to you now.”
Eyes wide, Yumi glanced up at Ren, who smiled back innocently. “Don’t look at me.”
Pauline, meanwhile, huffed in disgust. “What is wrong with you people? You don’t realize how creepy she is, do you? Well, we do. We were her classmates last year, don’t forget.”
One of her cronies shuddered. “It’s like she got inside our heads and stole our thoughts.”
“She probably didn’t get much from you then,” one of Yumi’s classmates retorted.
Pauline made a frustrated sound. “We’re trying to warn you, okay? You can’t let that witch cast her curses on the rest of us. She steals your secrets. You can’t trust—”
“What is it about her that makes her a witch?” Ren spoke up. “Are you talking about this?”
Before Yumi could figure out what he was up to, he took her hand, forcing her to raise her mental shield before she lost herself in his threads at the single most inconvenient time. He shot her a conspiratorial grin before crying out in a high, falsetto voice: “Oh no, I’m so terrified! I’m actually holding the witch’s hand. What secrets of mine have you stolen now, Yumi?”
Yumi dissolved into giggles. “Secrets? But you don’t have any secrets, Ren. Everyone knows you and Dindo are fighting a mad attraction for each other,” she said, matching his hammy delivery.
While everyone laughed, Ren gasped and whirled around to face the aforementioned Dindo, the fingers of one hand pressed against his mouth like an overwrought Victorian lady. “Oh man, you too, Navarro?” Dindo gasped, clasping both hands to his heart. “I had no idea.”
“Well, now you know, my darling.”
As the two boys pretended to embrace like star-crossed lovers, the Marketing Committee head hopped to the front and struck a pose worthy of any game-show host. “Look at that, ladies and gentlemen! Another beautiful romance brought together by Section II-Ruby’s Goddess of Love.”
The Terrible Threesome found themselves marooned in a sea of laughter and good-natured ribbing, even from members of their own section, who’d stopped to watch the exchange. Then the girl whom Yumi recognized as Pauline’s cousin stepped over to the trio. “Wait, so if she’s so good at stealing secrets, does that mean what she said about you liking Teddy is true?” she queried. “In that case, I’m not sure who’s the weird one: you or her.”
Pauline turned an unattractive shade of red, and for a moment, her face crumpled as if she was about to burst into tears. “No, it’s not true!” she exclaimed, shooting Yumi another hate-filled look. “She was just lying to protect herself back then.”
Her cousin crossed her arms. “Then she can’t be a witch like you said. It’s all just guesswork.”
“Oh jeez, woman, of course it’s guesswork,” the Marketing Committee head said in his normal voice, hands on his hips. “Yumi does some kind of palm-reading thing. She’s amazingly good at it, but so what? Palmistry’s still not an exact science. Do you actually believe she’s got special powers or ESP? There’s no such thing, duh,” he added, while her classmates called out their agreement.
“Yeah, Pauline, lay off her already, okay? You’re just digging yourself in deeper.” To Yumi’s shock, Laurence appeared and began herding the trio away. The look he gave her over his shoulder was inscrutable, but the way his two cords felt twined around her arm still burned clear in her memory. Biting her lip, she watched him until he and the girls disappeared into the crowd.
While her classmates cheered at having successfully driven off the blasphemers, she continued to stare unseeing at the ground, clutching Ren’s sarong around her. Noticing her silence, Ren turned her face up toward his with a finger on her chin. “Hey, what’s the mat—wait, why’re you crying?”
He sounded so dismayed that she laughed. “I’m not crying.” She shook her head and blinked rapidly before looking around at her classmates. “Thanks, you guys. For standing up for me and—and for not believing I’m a witch. Thank you,” she finished in a near-whisper.
Through her stinging eyes, she saw nothing but acceptance and encouragement in the smiles of her classmates. “We all have one or two things we’re good at, Yumi. It just so happens that yours is reading palms or whatever. Just because it’s different doesn’t mean it’s bad,” Natalie pointed out.
“We saw how hard you worked getting into your Goddess character. You kept reading all those weird books and falling asleep in the library,” another girl put in with a giggle. “We figured you couldn’t be the witch they said you were if you were so willing to try your best to get along with us.”
Sniffling, Yumi beamed at her classmates, and felt Fran’s and Lisette’s arms go around her in a hug. Then a couple of teachers came by, announcing that the parade was about to begin. As everyone else passed around the cardboard fruit-signs they would carry around to advertise their fruit-shake booth, Yumi began clambering up on their float’s platform. The float rolled forward a little, making her wobble until an arm caught her around the waist and steadied her.
Ren’s grin as he helped her up the platform made Yumi’s breath catch. “Nice one, Curly-Top. We still make a great team, huh?”
Her heart flopped painfully even as she smiled back. “Yeah, we do.”
“Maybe—” his grin faded and he swallowed—“maybe things between us haven’t changed all that much in the last three years.”
She stared down at him from her platform. He looked so good in his costume, despite the cardboard strawberry sign he was carrying. He was still wearing her sister’s black wire hair-band, though. It struck her as somewhat at odds with the strange mixture of tension and hopefulness in his face. Or maybe you just wish it does, a voice in her head whispered. Maybe he’s just trying to clear the air between you once and for all. After all, how bothersome would it be to be constantly getting into spats with your girlfriend’s younger sister?
Her heart squeezed again, and she bit her lips before anything stupid managed to emerge. Like a sob. Or a plea for him to notice her for once in his miserable fifteen years. Tough one, that, when aside from flying into some ridiculous overprotective fit, he couldn’t even be bothered to tell her she looked nice in her costume, or even different from the way she usually looked or—or something.
No, everything’s different between us now, because I’m different. Maybe you haven’t changed, but I have. I’m so sorry for ruining our friendship, Ren, but there’s no going back for me now.
He must have read something of her thoughts in her face, because that odd look of pain flashed over his features again. A whistle blew, then the music from the brass band way up front cut through the warm air, and everyone cheered as the parade began. The Marketing Committee head appeared and gestured at Yumi to rid herself of the sarong concealing most of her costume. As she unwound the cloth from around her, the float lurched forward, nearly sending her toppling off until Ren caught her arm.
He released her when she regained her footing, and took his sarong from her. He kept pace beside her, the expression on his face colder than it had ever been this morning. It broke her heart a little more. I’ve made him angry again, she thought sadly. Looks like that part hasn’t changed, at least.
Noticing her glancing at him from the corner of her eye, he pinned her with a look of dark ice. “Don’t leave my side, Yumi.”
Yes, Yumi. Don’t leave his side. Make it easier for him to keep his promise to Ate Tala to watch out for her screwball little sister.
Yumi nodded, unable to speak through the lump in her throat. Then there were no more chances to speak as she fixed a bright smile on her face and raised her arms to let the wind lift her white veils and play with her curls—the Goddess of Love descended from heaven to greet her cheering, wolf-whistling worshippers who had lined the streets to see her.
That night, after the Goddess had vanished, leaving the girl behind to cry herself to sleep, a stray beam of moonlight drifted across her bed, illuminating the journal lying open beside her. On one page was written:
Today is the last time I use a truth I learn to hurt someone. No matter how much they deserve it. I will fight my battles fairly.
And below that:
I have unfinished business to deal with tomorrow.