On the corner of their homeroom whiteboard, somebody had drawn a crude picture of a timer counting down the days until the week of the school fair. Strictly speaking, though, the timer was unnecessary. When it came to the school fair, it was as if everyone had a timer installed directly inside their heads. The anticipation was impossible to miss. Even though the actual event was still three weeks away, the atmosphere at South Crescent High had already taken on the buzz of excitement that promised to ripen soon into ulcer-inducing tension and stress.
The school fair was one of the most awaited events for anyone connected with South Crescent High School. It was held in commemoration of the school’s foundation day, which by happy coincidence was the day before Valentine’s Day, giving it that extra spice of romance. There would be competitions among classes and the academic clubs; exhibition-games by the school’s sports teams; performances and exhibits courtesy of the theater, glee, and various arts-related clubs; and a battle-of-the-bands concert. There was something for everyone during the school fair week—an alumni homecoming for the alumni; a cocktails night and a gala performance by the theater group for the faculty and PTA; and an open house for the rest of the population of the South Crescent district.
Then there was the school fair itself, to be held in the afternoons for the first four days of the week, then the whole day of Friday and Saturday. Intended to instill the spirit of entrepreneurship among the students, the school fair would turn the entire school into a makeshift mall-cum-fairground. The freshmen class would set up food and drink stalls around the quadrangle, which they would share with booths hawking the clubs’ wares. The sophomore and junior classes would set up their booths in their respective homerooms, with the general theme of anything-goes. Themed cafés, jail booths, love-confession booths, truth-or-dare booths, karaoke booths—there had even been a Playstation vs Nintendo 64 booth once, but it was discontinued due to the amount of chaos it had caused.
Capping the entire week would be Students’ Night on Sunday, a semi-formal ball held in the school’s quadrangle and ground floor, where the winners of the different competitions would be announced, and with music provided by victor in the battle-of-the-bands.
The fair and Students’ Night were traditionally organized and managed by the senior class, who got to make the major decisions, and thus had the right to boss all the lower classes around. Which could explain why Ate Tala had been pricklier than usual lately, Yumi thought. As senior class student council vice-president, it was likely that Tala was already feeling the intense pressure that came with running an event of this scale.
“I just don’t understand what your problem is.” Tala’s face scrunched up in exasperation as she stood at the top of the stairs, her school blouse still unbuttoned, her mermaid tresses still uncombed. “I haven’t even finished dressing yet. Why can’t you wait for ten more minutes so we can go to school with Ren? For crying out loud, are you two fighting again?”
“No. I just want to get to school early today. That’s not a problem, is it?” Yumi tugged the strap of her school bag more securely on her shoulder with one hand, while her other hand was already turning the front door knob. To their mother, who had emerged from the kitchen, she said: “I’m going to hitch a ride with Dad. I’ll see you later.”
“Take care, anak,” her mother replied as she let herself out, closing the door on her sister screeching, “I can’t believe she left without me again!”
But as she sat in the car beside her dad, who was shooting curious looks at her from the corner of his eye, she admitted to herself that it wasn’t Ate Tala who was being a major pain. A few days had passed since her fight with Ren, and the two of them had fallen back on their old routine—avoid the other whenever possible, ignore when avoidance was not an option, and if that failed, make mean, hurtful digs at each other. But the strain of keeping up the routine was taking its toll on her. It shouldn’t be this hard, she told herself. She was supposed to be used it already. After three years spent in a state of undeclared war, she ought to be more used to this kind of relationship between them than to anything else. Least of all friendship.
As to anything more than that… Good grief. As if there’d ever been the slightest chance of that to begin with.
“Yumi, are you all right?”
Blinking rapidly, she pasted on a bright smile. “Yeah, Dad. Just thinking about the school fair.”
Her father smiled back. “I hear you’re going to be the star of your booth. Is that true?”
Yumi winced, recalling another recent spat with her sister, who, as Fran predicted, had not been pleased when she learned about Yumi’s role in their class’ café. “Are you out of your mind? Do you even have the slightest clue what you’re doing?” Tala had demanded, clearing a path in Yumi’s cluttered floor with her agitated pacing.
“Of course, I do,” Yumi had retorted. “I’m the one with the power, Ate. Don’t you think I’d know more about it than you?”
“Nobody in our family knows anything about your power, which is what I’m trying to say.” Tala stopped pacing and sighed. “You haven’t forgotten what happened to you last year, have you? Do you really want to go through that again?”
Last year had been a mistake. During the long, boring ride home after their class field trip, Yumi had carelessly let it slip that she had the ability to guess whom somebody liked. Some of her classmates had taken her up on her offer, and she’d spent the rest of the ride pretending to read palms and revealing—with one hundred percent accuracy—who had a crush on whom. She stayed home the next couple of days, sick with fever and a headache that she knew now came from overusing her power. But when she came back to school, she found that, aside from Fran and Lisette who were in different classes at the time, nobody would talk to her, or stay near her, or even look her in the eye, and the whispers she heard behind her back always contained one word: witch.
It had gone on for weeks, escalating to the point where she’d had salt dumped into her schoolbag, pentagrams scribbled on the pages of her notebook, and cutouts of voodoo dolls taped to the back of her blouse. She hadn’t even wanted to check her Facebook page for fear of what she might read there. Finally, she confessed everything to her sister, who must have worked some kind of miracle, because mere days later, the rumors died away and people started talking to her again.
Until now, Yumi couldn’t figure out how Ate Tala had done it.
“I know, I know,” she grumbled. “I’ll be careful this time. I won’t say anything unnecessary and I’ll be sure to make a mistake every now and then.”
Tala rolled her eyes. “Coming from you, that’s not very reassuring. Look, I’ve seen how you work. You can’t control your power, and you end up blurting everything inside your head. Do you have any idea how humiliating it was when you ran after that lady at the mall and started preaching to her about being true to her feelings and accepting the love of some guy?”
“That was an accident, okay?” Yumi protested, pouting. “I grabbed her shopping bag by mistake. And she seemed happy when I told her about—”
“What she seemed was dangerously close to freaking out, and I don’t blame her,” Tala cut in. “Look, until you can show me that you’ve gotten your power—and your mouth—under control, you can’t be the Goddess of Love in your booth. I’ll get the senior council to revoke our approval of your class proposal if I have to. Do you understand me, Yumi?”
Oh, I understand all right, Yumi thought, then sighed to herself. Her sister had been infuriatingly highhanded, but she did have a point. Yumi did need to do something about her power, which, to add to her worries, seemed to be growing stronger. At this rate, she was more likely to go back to being the school witch again than help her class win the booth competition.
She belatedly remembered that her dad had asked her a question. “Yeah, I’m supposed to be a goddess who tells love fortunes. But it’s okay, Dad. It’s all just role-playing anyway.”
“I see. Well, just don’t overdo it. Keep in mind that there are more important things than school fairs,” her dad said as the car rolled to a stop in front of the school gates.
She smiled. “Yeah, I will. Bye.”
The classroom was half-empty when she got there. She greeted her classmates, pleasure flaring inside her when they smiled and greeted her back. It felt really good knowing that people liked her, that people approved of her. The world felt much warmer. Despite what Ate Tala thought, Yumi hadn’t forgotten what it was like when she was nothing but a shadow—ignored, isolated, and mocked behind her back. And always, always alone. Even with the sunlight pouring through the windows, everything had felt so cold.
Yumi closed her hands into fists. No way was she going back to that kind of life. No way.
Fran came in and greeted her cheerfully—even more cheerfully than normal. Yumi observed the color in her friend’s cheeks and the sparkle in her eyes with interest. When she noticed the white, rectangular piece of paper in Fran’s hand, the reason for her cheerfulness became clear. “Wow, you got another one?” she asked excitedly. “How many does that make it?”
Fran blushed and bit her lip, but her smile spilled out anyway. “Seven. Eight, counting the one he uploaded on the comments section of my blog,” she admitted, showing the piece of paper to Yumi.
Drawn on the paper in colored pencil and ink was Fran—shoulder-length hair, dreamy eyes, glasses and all—done in exquisitely rendered Japanese manga-style. She was sitting at a desk beside a window, watching a flock of birds soar across the sky. The birds in the lead were slightly blurred, and as they flew against the sunlight, they seemed to resemble angelic figures instead. Affection and tenderness shone from each line and shading, and Yumi couldn’t help but sigh. “It’s so beautiful. It’s for the entry where you wrote that you sometimes see birds as angels, right?”
“Yeah.” Three-dimensional Fran gazed down at the drawing, her face soft. “I wish I knew who he is. He doesn’t sign his drawings, and he posted his one comment anonymously. Don’t you think it’s weird that a total stranger can see what I see inside my head?”
Yumi stared at her friend. “I can find out who he is, you know, if I read your threads.”
The flush in Fran’s cheeks drained away, and to Yumi’s surprise, she suddenly looked uneasy. “I—I don’t know, Yumi,” she murmured, cradling her drawing to her chest. “I’ll think about it, okay?”
“Oh, okay,” was all Yumi could think to say.
“Anyway, that’s not the only thing I saw this morning. Guess who was walking to school together just a while ago,” Fran went on excitedly, leaning closer to Yumi. When she shrugged and shook her head, Fran all but squealed. “It’s Lisette! And walking right beside her was Erik Santiago.”
“Erik Santiago? Isn’t he a junior?”
“Yes! He’s the one they call the prince of the junior class. They say he’s really good-looking, really charming, and really rich. Anyway, he and Lisette weren’t just walking, they were talking as if they were totally comfortable with each other. And guess what else. You know those cute, little bags Lisette puts her pastries in?”
Yumi nodded, fascinated by this tale of apparently yet another blooming romance in their midst.
“Well, Erik was holding a bag exactly like it. Oh my gosh, what do you think is going on between them?”
Before Yumi could reply, Lisette herself arrived. “Hey, you two. I’ve got a surprise for—what’s up? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Lisette, you were walking with Erik Santiago earlier, weren’t you? Do you two know each other?” Fran asked eagerly.
Lisette blinked. “Erik? Yeah, I know him, but we’re not close or anything. He’s on the swimming team, I think. Anyway, here’s my surprise. Ta-dah!” Fishing around in her bag, she pulled out two colorful, beribboned plastic bags, each one containing a dark brown cupcake. “I’ve been tweaking this chocolate lava cupcake recipe I found online. Try it and tell me what you think.”
Yumi and Fran exchanged glances as they accepted the cupcakes. “Thanks. Um, you didn’t happen to give Erik a cupcake, did you?” Yumi began.
“Be-because I saw him—at least, I thought I saw him with a bag like this one,” Fran stammered.
“What? No way. Why would I do that?”
Lisette laughed, but Yumi noticed that she’d curled both her hands around the straps of her bag. As if to keep me from touching them. She didn’t know what to think about that. One of her best friends had something she didn’t want her to know, while the other had something she herself didn’t want to know. Yumi felt as if she was missing something. Didn’t Fran just say she wished she knew who her mystery artist was? And as for Lisette, wouldn’t it be easier for her if her friends knew what was going on and could therefore lend their support? Ugh, it was all so confusing.
Her two friends were still chatting, and Yumi realized she’d lost track of the conversation. Then her thoughts were derailed completely when Ren sauntered into the room, accompanied by three of his friends. Yumi’s jaw dropped as she stared at him. His bangs were gone, held back by a blue hair-band that looked vaguely familiar. Without the messy, black fringe hiding them, his dark eyes appeared even more striking, with his arched eyebrows, lean face and high cheekbones giving him an arrogant, aristocratic look.
Yumi’s heart kicked against her ribs. Ren was…he was…Good grief, he’s hot. Then his lips—those same lips she just realized she’d been studying with some bewilderment—curled upward in a smirk. Her gaze snapped up just in time to see the cold glint in his eyes, and she turned around so quickly her neck muscles twanged.
Of course, she wasn’t the only one who’d noticed his transformation. The instant he sat down in his chair behind Yumi’s, he was surrounded by girls who were squealing and cooing over him, jostling Yumi in the process.
“Wow, Ren, you look good!”
“Dude, I understand now why you’ve been hiding that pretty face underneath all that hair.”
“That’s such a cute hair-band. Is it yours?”
“Nah, I borrowed it from Tala Muñoz,” Ren replied, ever so casually punching a hole through Yumi’s chest. There was a beat of awed silence, followed by a fresh flood of questions. “What? Oh, we’re neighbors, so we come to school together sometimes. She was the one who suggested I wear her hair-band. She said it looked better on me than on her anyway,” he added with a laugh.
“Holy cow, dude. The Tala Muñoz? She’s, like, the ultimate babe.”
“Hey, wait, isn’t she your sister, Yumi?”
“Yeah, she is,” Yumi heard Ren say. “Tala’s the nice one, though.”
Unable to hear the laughter over the roaring in her ears, Yumi stood up abruptly, heedless of her notebook and pencil case spilling to the floor, and stalked out of the room. Avoid, ignore, attack, she thought, her feet pounding concrete the way she imagined her fist pounding Ren’s face. Avoid, ignore, attack. Strictly in that order. You’re not supposed to attack first. After all this time, don’t you know that yet? Ren, you stupid, stupid…idiot!
She stopped, only then becoming aware that her friends had been calling her name for a while now. Lisette caught up with her easily, with a panting Fran following shortly after. “What happened back there? Why was Ren being extra-nasty to you?” Lisette demanded.
“I thought…I thought you two were…friends again,” Fran managed as she bent over, trying to catch her breath.
“I—Ren and I are—”
Fran straightened and readjusted her glasses, then gasped. “Oh no, Yumi. What happened?”
Yumi blinked at her, which sent more tears rolling down her face. She wiped at her cheek and stared in befuddlement at the wetness on her fingers. “Huh?”
The school bell rang, making Yumi jump. But Lisette only sighed as she slid an arm around her shoulders and steered her in the direction of the school’s garden. “Let’s forget about English for now, shall we? I want to get to the bottom of this. And Yumi, eat that cupcake already.”
Yumi glanced down at the little plastic bag she was still clutching. “Um, can’t I eat it later?”
“No,” Lisette stated. “What you need right now is chocolate. Lots of chocolate. And lucky for you—” she triumphantly flourished a cloth pouch bulging with more cupcakes—“I came prepared.”