Part 1: The Wedding Rings, Ch. 1

Sometime in 1994

Less than two hours after we first met, Christian married me.

That’s slightly more impressive than it sounds, given that he and I didn’t have our first kiss until over a day later. At that point, it was already somebody else’s wedding reception.

Granted, the circumstances surrounding our wedding were unusual. For one thing, when I say Christian married me, I mean he was both my groom and, as captain of the Silver Phoenix, the officiating officer. And he didn’t actually propose to me so much as he commanded the rest of us to accept the fact of our marriage. It had come as a surprise to everyone, and by everyone, I mean mostly Princess Starlight, whom we had just rescued from the clutches of a ruthless gang of intergalactic pirates—or were they asteroid-monsters? Maybe both. Who knew?

Anyway, the Princess clearly expected Christian to marry her, she being the highest-ranked civilian on board the Phoenix. As for the rest of the crew, well, I doubt the issue mattered as much to them. As far as the boys were concerned, they couldn’t care less who their captain hooked up with as long as they got to fight more piratical asteroid-monsters. My older sister might have cared a bit, going by her look of open-mouthed astonishment.

Oh, and me. It definitely surprised me. After all, in the movies, dashing captains of futuristic starships married princesses, not some tagalong additions to their crew whom they barely knew.

Even if said captains were only eight years old.

“It’s not fair!”

Princess Starlight, who went by the name of Nikki when she wasn’t playacting the role of a beautiful galactic princess with unspecified magical powers, pouted ferociously. She still managed to look cute and adorable and completely the type that got called “darling little poppet” a lot, though.

“Who’s that girl, anyway? I’ve never seen her before,” one of the boys, whose ages ranged from five to eleven, muttered to another.

“They’re kids of Tita Cathy’s friend. You know, the one staying at the guest house.”

“Oh. What’s her name again?”

“It’s Grace, dummy. Didn’t you hear?”

I’m Grace,” my sister snapped, hanging her head upside down from her perch on the rooftop of the tree-house play-set that served as our starship, and glaring at the boys. The boys scattered, one nearly tumbling down the large, yellow slide that corkscrewed down one. I was surprised none of them ended up hiding out in the empty swimming pool that competed with the play-set in dominating the backyard. Ate Grace could scare the beans out of people sometimes.

Then the teasing began. “Christiaaan likes heeeerrrr! Christiaaan likes heeeerrrr!” a couple of boys chanted like an unusually articulate species of howler monkey, causing Nikki’s face to turn an even darker shade of red.

And me? I just stood there, frozen in complete stupefaction at the realization that I’d apparently just received my first marriage proposal. Me. At the tender age of just-turned-eight. While surrounded by a bunch of strange, snotty, rich kids. In a mansion so grand its backyard could accommodate a pool, a tree-house playground, and a guest house besides. The fact that the others remembered my sister’s name but not mine registered in my mind, but barely. Even the fact that my very first sort-of marriage proposal had promptly been met with violent objections seemed incidental. To be honest, that seemed more normal to me than this whole, surreal marriage proposal thing.

“No! Be quiet!” Nikki stomped her foot, working herself into a full-blown tantrum. “I’m the princess! I should be the bride! Christian should marry me!”

“Ah, who cares who he marries? Let’s go back to fighting pirates,” put in another kid who seemed a little more sensible than the others.

But Nikki wasn’t done yet. “Besides,” she screeched, pointing at me, “she’s ugly!”

Ugly! Ugly!

The word didn’t echo in my head so much as it bored through my skull and crammed itself into every available inch of space. I imagined it putting down roots in my brain and sprouting leaves like some kind of alien plant. I stared at Nikki, who wore an expression of malicious triumph, and felt tears well up in my eyes.

“Hey you, don’t be mean to my sister!” Ate Grace yelled back, getting ready to clamber down, her furious face making it clear that she didn’t care if the Princess was three years younger or the niece of our host, she was getting the royal smack-down right now.

Somebody else beat her to it. There was a rustling noise from the branches above, followed by a whoosh-thud as a figure dropped down to a crouch right in front of me. He stood up and casually tucked his plastic blaster into the waistband of his shorts. Then he turned toward Nikki, positioning himself so that he blocked my view of her and, more importantly, he blocked her view of me.

“Shut up, Nikki. Nobody cares what you think,” he said in a loud voice. “And anyway, I wouldn’t marry you even if you weren’t my cousin. You’re just a spoiled brat, that’s all.”

I blinked, my tears forgotten, as a kind of semi-awed silence descended upon us. Wow, he really told her off. Peering around his back, I was treated to the sight of Nikki’s face turning red again for an entirely different reason. A fat teardrop rolled down her cheek as her lower lip began to tremble.

“Uh oh,” somebody muttered just as Nikki sucked in a breath, opened her mouth and howled. As she ran off into the house, the same commentator added: “She’s gonna tell on you, you know. You’re in for it now.”

My defender merely shrugged, as if the prospect of getting punished for making his cousin cry was no big deal, then turned to face me. Strands of his straight, black hair were stuck to his sweaty forehead, with bits of dried leaf tangled in for good measure. There was a smudge of dirt across the right side of his jaw, more or less matching the spots on his knees and the multiple stains on his Batman tank top. How he managed to get so filthy when the playground was almost pristine I couldn’t imagine. His chocolate eyes beneath straight brows were warm and soulful, and when he flashed me a wide, lopsided grin, a dimple appeared in his left cheek. Looking at him, I formed a vague idea of how exactly he planned to get out of the scolding he had coming. If his bratty cousin got called a “darling poppet”, then I figured he was what they called a “handsome little devil” and a “cheeky charmer”.

Hah. No wonder he seemed so unconcerned. With a face like his, eyes like his, a sunny, appealing smile like his, I doubted there was a grownup alive who could resist him for long. I felt almost sorry for Nikki. As good as she was, it was likely she was outclassed by her own cousin.

And this boy…

“You’re not ugly,” he said to me as his gaze locked with mine.

This handsome, confident boy who’d unhesitatingly grabbed my hand moments after we were introduced, pulled me toward his backyard, and declared my sister and me the newest members of his crew, assuming correctly that his orders would not be questioned… This brash, outspoken, and above all weird boy who seemed to be the natural leader of our crew despite the presence of boys older and stronger than he was…

He smiled at me again, a hint of red tinting his cheeks. “Like I said, I’m going to marry you, Joy.”

This boy remembered my name.

No, no, no, that was entirely missing the point. I took a step back, alarmed by this boy’s tendency to spout unwarranted edicts at random. “I—I don’t think—” I began, beginning to blush myself.

“Christiaaan likes heeeerrrr! Christiaaan likes heeeerrrr!”

The chanting started up again. The red tinge on his cheeks deepened to scarlet, but his gaze never left mine. In the middle of the din, I heard Ate Grace call out in exasperation: “Aren’t you supposed to ask her first?”

“Fine, I will,” he tossed over his shoulder. “So, you’ll marry me, right?” was what he asked me.

“Huh?” I responded eloquently. Is he crazy?

“I’m asking you.” As I continued to gape at him, his smile faded until he dropped his gaze and turned aside. “You can say no if you don’t want to,” he said offhandedly, pulling his blaster out and twirling it in a show of indifference that fooled no one.

No, I won’t marry you. We’re only eight, for crying out loud! was what I’d intended to say. But just as I thought, any hint of dejection in that amazingly good-looking face immediately made people want to agree to whatever he said, just to bring back that lopsided grin and the warm sparkle in his eyes. It was like some kind of hypnotism, and when I opened my mouth to refuse him, what came out was: “But there’s no priest to marry us.”

He threw the blaster up in the air with one hand, caught it neatly with the other, and gave me a huge, happy and distinctly smug grin, which made me suspect his earlier dejection had not been one hundred percent sincere. “We don’t need a priest,” he informed me. “My dad said ship captains can marry people just as well, and since I’m the captain, I can marry us. And we can do it right now.”

He grabbed my hand before I could pull it away. “W-wait a minute…” I stammered, my gaze darting toward the amused, mocking faces around us.

Brushing aside my weak protestations, he raised our joined hands above our heads and solemnly intoned: “By the power vested in me, I declare us man and wife. There, now we’re married,” he continued in a normal voice as he let go of my hand.

“That’s not how it goes,” a boy snorted.

“You’re supposed to give her a ring, Romeo.”

“She didn’t exactly ‘yes’,” Ate Grace said sourly, still hung up over the absence of the of-my-own-free-will part.

“And aren’t you supposed to kiss her or something?” This sparked a fresh round of chanting of “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!” accompanied by exaggerated kissing noises.

“Knock it off!”

My self-declared husband glowered at his cousins, and once again, I was amazed and a little impressed at how he managed to get the rowdy bunch to almost quiet down. Then he looked at me, and the serious expression on his face made me squeak and take another step back. Oh no, please don’t tell me he’s going to—

“Christian Dominic! You come here right now.”

The motherly command forestalled anything he might have attempted to do, to my undying relief. Christian rolled his eyes and heaved a sigh before tromping off to where Tita Cathy was standing on the patio with her hands on her hips. With her was another well-dressed lady, and beside her was Nikki, still crying albeit in a much prettier way, although I didn’t miss the look of hatred she shot me in between dainty dabs at her face. On the other side of Tita Cathy stood Nanay, wearing an “I don’t want to know what mischief you girls have been up to” expression.

Tita Cathy stopped frowning at her son long enough to address the rest of us. “You kids get cleaned up. It’s almost time to go to the church for the rehearsal.”

The other boys trooped into the house amidst obligatory grumbling. Ate Grace jumped down from the tree-house, and together we came to stand beside Nanay as Tita Cathy launched into her “What were you thinking, making your cousin cry? That’s not how a good boy behaves” lecture.

“Sorry, Mom.” Christian scuffed the toe of his flip-flop against the floor and peeked up at her through his bangs, his chocolate eyes wide and filled with remorse. Just like that, the anger drained out of both Tita Cathy and Nikki’s mom, while Nanay smiled with gentle amusement. Even Nikki had forgotten to cry in favor of gazing worshipfully at him. Wow. Even having suspected that this was his MO, I still had to work to keep my mouth from going slack at this display. The weirdo was practically batting his eyelashes, couldn’t they see that? I looked up at my sister to see how she was taking this, and nearly slapped my hand to my forehead when I saw her regarding Christian with an almost admiring expression. I felt as if I was the only sane person left in the world.

“Oh well, okay. So long as you understand that what you did is wrong, and you apologize to Nikki.” Tita Cathy sighed and ruffled his hair, dislodging the dried leaf in the process. “Goodness, Christian, how on earth do you manage to get so dirty?”

“I was just playing,” Christian said innocently. Then he glanced sidelong at me and gave me a conspiratorial grin. My jaw broke free of my restraint. Nikki didn’t stand a chance against him.

“Well, we know how little boys are,” Nikki’s mom added in a mollifying tone. “Now, darling, stop crying already. Christian will say sorry and you can be friends again, all right?”

Sniffling, Nikki held her hand out imperiously to Christian, who looked at her and said, “I’ll say sorry to her only if she says sorry to Joy first.”

“Who’s Joy?” Nikki’s mom wondered as all other eyes were suddenly trained on me. I shrank back against my sister, feeling panicky at being the center of attention yet again. Ate Grace elbowed me in an attempt to detach me from her side, but if there was something I could do pretty well, it was an impression of a limpet.

Tita Cathy looked bewildered. “Joy? Why?”

“Nikki called her ugly,” Christian replied, ignoring the frantic way I was shaking my head at him.

“I did not!” Nikki gasped.

“Really, she couldn’t have,” her mother agreed, giving me an accusing look, as though I was somehow putting words into his mouth.

“Yes, she did. Everybody heard it,” Ate Grace spoke up, meeting Nikki’s glare head-on. By then, she’d given up trying to pry me off of her and simply let me hide behind her.

“Grace, please,” Nanay said warningly before turning to me. “Joy? Come out, anak. Is there something you’d like to say?”

Wishing with all my heart that I was somewhere else, I stared down at my feet and shook my head, causing my sister to groan.

Christian gave Nikki a narrow-eyed look, his jaw set in a mulish angle. “Apologize to Joy first, then I’ll apologize to you.”

Nikki stared at him in anguish, torn between her dislike of me and her adoration of her cousin, while her mother murmured half-heartedly, “I’m sure she didn’t mean it.” Finally, she fixed me a sullen look and muttered, “Sorry.”

“Joy?” Nanay prodded.

“S’okay,” I muttered back.

Christian nodded in satisfaction and offered his hand—with fingernails encrusted with dirt, I couldn’t help notice—to Nikki, who didn’t hesitate to take it. Nanay and Tita Cathy beamed, then the mothers herded their respective children off to get cleaned up. As we followed Nanay down the path that led to the guest house, Ate Grace gave me a disgusted look. “What’s wrong with you? You gotta learn to speak up, Joy. You can’t let girls like her bully you like that.”

“I don’t really like fighting,” I said. “Besides, it’s Christian’s fault. Nikki was ignoring me until he made that stupid joke of his.”

“Why is it Christian’s fault?” Nanay asked, overhearing our conversation. “He stood up for you, anak. In fact, I thought it was rather gallant of him to make Nikki apologize to you first.”

I looked askance at my mother, who was obviously well under his spell. But before I could set her straight, AteGrace snickered and said, “Oh, didn’t you hear, ‘Nay? Nikki got mad because Christian married Joy, not her. She’s jealous of Joy.”

“Christian…married Joy?” Nanay echoed, fighting off a grin.

Ate Grace giggled. “Yeah, he pretty much shouted that he and Joy were husband and wife. It was sooo romantic—not! But Nikki was steaming about it,” she added, as Nanay started to laugh.

“It’s his fault. Stupid Christian,” I muttered, my face as hot as a pavement in summer. But as I sat on the floor rifling through the travel bag my sister and I shared in search of a decent outfit to wear, I couldn’t help glancing at the full-length mirror beside the dresser. In the mirror, Ate Grace and Nanay flitted in and out of view, and I noted the pale-gold skin tone they both shared, the slim, elegant bodies, the long, thick waves of hair, the narrow faces and Cupid’s bow lips and almond eyes. And hunched at the bottom of the mirror was me—chubby, dark-skinned, round-faced, round-eyed, with lips that looked as if God had been doing target practice with gobs of Playdoh, and limp brown hair that hung down to the middle of my neck and did precious little else.

Ugly. At eight, I learned what that word meant for me, how it would shape who I would become. It was like being assigned a role. Eleven-year-old Ate Grace was the bold, adventurous, fearless one. My other sister, Faith, at five years old, was already turning out to be the pretty, feminine one. And I, I was the serious one, the quiet one, the easily forgotten and often-ignored one—the fat, dark, ugly one. It was just that, up until Nikki, nobody had been quite so blunt at saying so. Maybe that’s why it hurt so much. I’d thought of it before, in the safety of my own head, after noticing how people talked about me and how they treated me compared to my sisters. But it was the first time I’d heard it shouted brutally into my face and somehow, that made it much more real for me.

You’re not ugly.

I turned away from the mirror as the image of a handsome boy’s lopsided grin danced in my mind. Stupid Christian and his stupid joke, I thought again. Then wondered if I was mad at him for causing so much trouble with his marriage proposal, or for making me wish he hadn’t been joking at all.

READ PART 1: THE WEDDING RINGS, CHAPTER 2.

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