Part 2: The Wedding Vows, Chapter 2

READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 1

One evening in my eleventh year, I slipped into our room with my favorite orange tabby cat Siopao, quietly locked the door, pushed it securely into the doorjamb with my knee, then jammed a chair underneath the doorknob. The precautions might have seemed a little unnecessary, what with Ate Grace out chatting with some of the neighborhood girls and my parents and Faith watching TV, but privacy was a scarce resource in our house and I wasn’t about to take any chances. From the way Siopao headed purposefully for our bed, jumped up on the mattress and promptly curled up to sleep, it was clear he approved of my vigilance.

I went over to our bed and took out the tin box with a small padlock that I kept wedged between our mattress and the wall. I sat down on the floor near Siopao with the box on my lap and a tiny key. The box had grown considerably heavier since I was eight, and the moment I undid the lock, the lid flew open as though gasping for breath, throwing up the contents on my lap. Once, the box had contained only three things: a small brass bell tied with peach and green ribbons, an empty, beribboned chiffon bag—I’d eventually caved in and eaten the candies inside the bag—and a crimson velvet pouch. Now, I lifted out several other objects besides: a Lego spaceman; a blue Matchbox car; a couple of jewel-like marbles; a plastic skull with feet that hopped about and clacked its jaw when you wound it up; a few arcade tokens and a small plushie that resembled Hello Kitty if you squinted at it and were feeling generous; a shriveled-up balloon, a party invitation and a cardboard puzzle, all emblazoned with the Batman logo; a green plastic egg wrapped in tissue; a white baby bootie with blue ribbons; a Minnie Mouse keychain; a necklace and bracelet set made of colorful wooden beads; some pretty seashells; two nearly identically-shaped stones, one white and the other nearly black; and one perfect pine cone.

Each one was either a gift from Christian or a memento from the times we spent together. The toys were from our play-dates at his house. The party favors, including the sad-looking balloon, were from his 9th birthday party. The arcade tokens were from our trip to the mall, where Christian, my sisters and I ran wild through Worlds of Fun while our moms sat at a nearby iced yoghurt shop and gossiped like teenaged girls. In fact, the pseudo-Hello Kitty plushie was the prize he’d won after no less than seven attempts at the claw machine, a prize he’d later presented to me with an endearing mix of chest-thumping pride and rueful embarrassment. The Minnie Mouse keychain and the necklace set were his Christmas and birthday gifts to me. The pebbles, the seashells, the yin-yang stones, and the pinecone were souvenirs from various trips that he’d given to me for no reason other than he thought I might like them.

Two items were a little bit different. With a nostalgic smile, I picked up the plastic egg from its nest of tissue and twisted it open, revealing a wad of P20 and P50 bills. I counted the money—nearly six hundred bucks in all—then re-wadded the bills and tucked them back into the egg, remembering.

“Hey, Joy, I’ve been thinking about something,” Christian had said.

I looked up at him as I swept up my latest winnings. My sisters and I were spending the afternoon in his room, which was about thrice the size of ours and, when we’d first come in at least, was so neat it had to have been the work of either housemaids or elves. This suspicion was reinforced when Christian, as his way of saying mi cuarto es su cuarto, dived into his toy chest and began flinging toys left and right. A couple of hours later, you could barely see the floor underneath all the cars, train sets, Lego blocks, action figures, POGS cardboard caps, board games, sports equipment and plastic weaponry littered about. His books lay around the bookshelf like downed planes. His bed sheet was listing off the side of the bed, his pillows having long since relocated to the floor. One corner of some kung-fu movie poster had been pulled off the wall and was drooping wearily. And everything was covered in a fine layer of yellow cheese-curl dust and chocolate cookie crumbs, with small puddles of apple juice here and there.

Ate Grace was planted in front of his TV playing Mortal Kombat, while Faith was currently conducting a passionate affair with his RC buggy. Christian and I had started out playing Monopoly until we’d gotten bored, so after unearthing a pack of cards, I taught him the finer points of pusoy, with Batman and Red Power Ranger joining us for a couple of hands and the Monopoly money as stakes. However, Christian had grown somewhat preoccupied as the games progressed. I assumed it was because Batman and I had been taking turns trouncing him at pusoy, but as I took in his serious expression, it became apparent that he had other things on his mind.

“Thinking about what?” I asked. Out of habit, I reached across and brushed the streaks of cookie crumbs and yellow powder from the corner of his mouth. When I first became aware of my instinct to fuss over him, I’d apologized profusely, afraid that he found it annoying. But to my surprise, he didn’t mind at all. A lot of the time he was in a state of near-constant motion—running, jumping, laughing, shouting, climbing up something, swinging down something, dashing here, swerving there, kicking or punching or brandishing a pretend sword or a gun, and generally just being an energetic dynamo surrounded by a tornado of dirt, dust and admiring attention. It took a minor miracle to get him to stay in one spot for long. Nevertheless, he stood docile whenever I tended to him, patiently allowing me to wipe his face with my fingers or handkerchief, finger-comb his hair, and pat some dirt off his clothes, watching me with a warm look in his eyes, and smiling crookedly in thanks afterward. I secretly thought it was sweet of him to do so, not to mention completely in keeping with his prince-like character.

Even now, as I rubbed a smudge of chocolate off his chin, he tilted his face ever so slightly to give me better access, and his eyelids drifted half-shut for a moment. I bit my lip to keep from giggling at how cute he looked. He acted just like Siopao, who’d been a kitten then, when he was getting a chin-rub, and I had to struggle to keep from tickling him under the chin just to see if I could make him purr the way Siopao did.

Deciding that he’d given me enough time to groom him, he smiled his thanks and sat up, wiping his yellow-stained fingers on his shorts. “Well, I heard my mom talking to one of her clients, and she said one thing a married couple needs is a nest-egg.”

“A nest-egg?”

“Yeah. It’s something they grow for when they’re retired and can’t work anymore.”

“An egg?” I frowned as images of clucking poultry danced in my head. “Just one? I’d think you need a whole bunch of eggs, and chickens to lay them, and a chicken coop, too. That way you’d always have eggs and chickens to eat and to sell when you’re broke, like our neighbor Mang Edgar does.”

Christian laughed and shook his head. “It’s not that kind of egg. A nest-egg’s a special egg that hatches money instead of a chicken. And it’s—no, wait. I’ve got an idea.”

He shot to his feet and ran toward his toy-chest again, sending playing cards and Monopoly money scattering in his wake. I watched, bemused, as more toys went flying until he surfaced again, with one of his hands stuck up his T-shirt. He glanced furtively about before going to his study-desk, kicking open a small cabinet, and pulling out a Power Rangers coin bank. Juggling the coin bank and the object he still kept hidden underneath his shirt with one arm, he offered his other hand to me. The moment I put my hand in his, I found myself zooming out of the room behind him as he called out a hasty “we’ll be back!” at a puzzled-looking Faith.

He pulled me through the corridors of his house until we came to an alcove with a window overlooking the swimming pool, the ornamental garden and the greenhouse in their backyard. I settled down upon the window seat amidst a small pile of throw pillows, and fixed him an expectant look.

Blushing a little, he placed his coin bank down on the cushion and plopped on the seat beside me. “Here,” he said, pulling out whatever mysterious object he’d hidden in his shirt and handing it to me.

It was a bright green plastic egg. “It’s an egg,” I said, and felt immediately silly.

He gave me a lopsided grin. “Not just any old egg. It’s our nest-egg, which we’re going to grow until we’re married. My mom said it’s best to grow your nest-egg as soon as possible, so I thought we ought to be starting now.”

My own face grew hot at this reminder of our promise to marry each other even as something inside me melted. He still remembers. Suddenly unable to look him in the eye, I focused on twisting the egg open to reveal… “Um, there’s nothing in here,” I said.

He was already prying the lid off his coin bank even as I was speaking. “Wait…we’ve got to…put something…here.” The lid came off with a pop, and he reached inside and pulled up several crumpled bills. I carefully laid the two halves of the egg upon a pillow—if it was an egg that hatched money instead of a chick, then it deserved every ounce of respect—then helped him straighten out the bills. In the end, the money amounted to little less than five hundred bucks.

“Sorry about this,” Christian said sheepishly, tugging at his hair at the back of his head. “I kinda busted my savings on a bunch of comic books last Saturday. This is all that’s left.”

I gaped at him. The money was worth nearly an entire month of my allowance, and he’d just described it as “all that’s left.” Good grief, what planet did this guy come from? “It’s okay. I’m sure it’ll grow into a big nest-egg,” I croaked, faintly astounded at the words coming out of my mouth.

He brightened. “Yeah, you’re right. All things start out really small before they grow big, don’t they? My mom tells her clients that, too.” Then he gave me a smile that made the dimple on his left cheek appear. “Heh, you’re really smart. It’s like you always know exactly the right thing to say.”

I blushed at his praise. “No way. It’s just dumb luck most of the time.”

A frown momentarily crossed his face, then he shrugged it off. He collected the money into a wad, rolled it up and stuffed it into the egg, twisting it shut with a flourish. Then he held the egg out to me. “Here. You keep it, Joy. I know you’ll be able to make it grow,” he said again, his eyes warm and steady despite the red tinge on his cheeks.

“I will,” I promised, taking the egg from him with an equal amount of solemnity. I didn’t know the first thing about growing a nest-egg, but Christian had just entrusted me with a part of our future together, not to mention his life-savings. I would not betray that trust. I was going to learn all about nest-eggs and I was going to grow ours until it was as big as it could possibly get.

Then I looked down at the egg I held cradled against my chest, and mused out loud: “I wonder if this is the reason there’s a coin-bearer in a wedding.”

“Hey, you’re right,” he said. “I bet newlyweds are supposed to take those coins and put them inside their own eggs to grow. But why did they have to take them out of the eggs in the first place? I think it’d be more awesome if the coin-bearer carried a gigantic egg on a pillow instead of a bunch of coins.”

“Or a lot of normal-sized eggs. The eggs could be painted lots of different colors so they’d be prettier. With ribbons to match the colors of the decorations. And maybe it should be an egg-tray instead of a pillow.” I pictured the scene: an egg-bearer dressed in barong tagalog and black pants, marching with stately dignity down the aisle bearing an egg-tray lined with lace and loaded with colorful eggs.

He grinned. “Right, that’s settles it. We’re doing that on our wedding.” I opened my mouth to agree, only to squeak when I found myself swept into a hug. “I’m glad you’re my bride, Joy,” he said, squeezing me tight.

With one hand still clutching the egg, I put my other arm around him and hugged him back, burying my face against his middle and breathing in the scent of cheese-curls, apple juice, air-conditioner, boy-sweat and Christian. When he finally pulled away and started toward his room, I found myself calling him back. “Christian?”

He stopped and looked back over his shoulder. “Yeah?”

Why did you choose me to be your bride? I opened my mouth to ask him, then closed it again, afraid of what I might hear. “N-nothing,” I mumbled, blushing again.

He flashed me a grin. “By the way, the nest-egg’s our secret, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, smiling back. I’ll ask him later, I promised myself.

Over time, I’d added a few more P20 bills, whenever I could spare them, to the wad of money in the egg. The thought that eventually I’d need more eggs to keep the money in filled me with a deep sense of satisfaction. Three years later, even though I’d long since figured out that nest-eggs did not necessarily involve any actual eggs, plastic or otherwise, I still kept our money in the egg he’d given me. It was our secret, after all. One more precious thing that bound us together.

I returned the egg into its nest of tissue and picked up another item: the blue-ribboned baby bootie, a souvenir from the baby shower held one afternoon at a cozy café in Tita Cathy’s honor. The baby shower was a particularly happy occasion, Nanay explained to us, because Tita Cathy, Christian’s mother, had been trying for years to get pregnant again but somehow, she kept losing the baby. Now, almost ten years since the birth of her first son, she was pregnant again, but had waited until the pregnancy was five months into its term to publicly announce it. In response, Nanay and some of their friends had gotten together to celebrate Tita Cathy’s wonderful news.

While the ladies were chatting it up and cooing over baby stuff, the nannies and the lone daddy who’d been brave enough to show his face at such an unrelentingly feminine gathering took the kids to a nearby park. There were several kids: my sisters and me, a thirteen-year-old boy and his eight-year-old sister, another boy around five years old, and Christian. We played at the playground then went bike-riding, and just like before, I couldn’t help notice how Christian gravitated to the role of leader again, a role that even the kids who were technically strangers to us accepted as natural. We presented our ideas to him for his approval and deferred to his rules and decisions when it came to games, role-playing characters and choice of food-booths for snacks. Even the thirteen-year-old asked him his opinion on things. It was completely automatic on our parts, including Christian’s. There was just something about this almost-ten-year-old boy that made people look up to him and want to be on his side, even people who were older or superior to him.

The wonder of the thing was, Christian didn’t act arrogant or domineering. He never bullied or forced his ideas upon us or got mad when somebody else had a different viewpoint. In fact, the food-booth he’d ultimately decided on was the one the thirteen-year-old boy had suggested, and he shot down the idea of a bike race because it wouldn’t have been fair to the five-year-old and Faith, the smallest kids in our group. He even took a turn pedaling the bike with a sidecar where the other girl, who didn’t know how to ride a bike, rode. Pretty soon, she was hanging on to his every word and gazing at him with the same rapt, adoring expression I’d seen before on his cousin Nikki—and on all the other girls who’d spent about three minutes in his company. Including, I noted with an inward roll of my eyes, my sister Faith. Then again, why would he need to bully people when all he had to do was blink his soulful, chocolate eyes and flash his lopsided grin to get them to agree to whatever he wanted? Even charm-immune Ate Grace, the sworn enemy of oppressors and male chauvinist pigs everywhere, treated Christian with the grave respect she would an equal.

Still, there were some things that Christian would not tolerate. Ever. We learned this when he decreed it time for us to go boat-riding at the artificial lake. While the other kids cheered, I heard the thirteen-year-old boy, who was standing behind me, mutter: “As long as nobody rides with Fatso here. She’ll probably sink the boat she’s on.”

I shrank into myself as a humiliated flush climbed up my face. Ate Grace must have heard it, too, because I saw her whirl around, a fierce expression on her face. But before either of us could make a move, Christian appeared, blocking the other boy’s path. Despite their height difference of a couple of inches, Christian stared the boy straight in the eye, his normally sunny, open face turning chillingly blank. “Do you know what her name is?” he asked in a casual tone.

“W-what?” The boy faltered, as shocked as the rest of us at Christian’s transformation.

“I asked you if you know what her name is.”

The other boy glanced bewilderedly at me, then back at the smaller, younger kid advancing toward him. Remembering that he was, in fact, older and bigger, he laughed uneasily and stuck out an arm to push him aside. “No, I don’t know what her name is. W-who cares?”

Christian caught the arm and kind of twisted it to hold it—and the boy—immobile. “I think you just forgot,” he went on conversationally. “Her name’s Joy. She’s shy and quiet, but she’s also sweet and smart and she tries her best no matter what she does. And—” He shoved the other boy away, sending him stumbling backward, the menacing blankness in his face giving way to dark fury. In a voice that was low and rough and full of promise, he said: “If I hear you call her by anything other than her name, I’m going to make sure you never need to be reminded again. Understand?”

Cradling his arm, the older boy into his face and nodded jerkily.

“Okay, kids, we’ve rented four—hey now, what’s going on here?” The five-year-old boy’s dad, who was acting as our head babysitter, suddenly loomed over them.

“They’re fighting, Dad. Kuya Christian and Kuya Ron-Ron are fighting,” his son piped up.

“Christian?” His dad stared hard at Christian, unable to believe that this charming, polite if somewhat hyper-active boy could actually show aggression.

“It’s nothing, Tito.” Christian stepped away, smiling his best, most placating smile. “We were just laying down some ground rules. We’re done now, anyway.”

The dad frowned with suspicion, then glanced at the slightly whey-faced older boy, who swallowed and nodded again. Forced to give up, he sighed and settled for separating the two boys. The kids got paired up, with the five-year-old and his dad in one boat, Ate Grace and Faith in another, and the older boy and his sister, who started scolding him for making Christian mad, in another boat. Christian grabbed my hand and pulled me straight toward the last boat.

As soon as they were launched from the little pier, all four boats immediately spread out. Christian and I both sat quietly on opposite ends of our boat, with Christian seemingly focused on rowing us in aimless circles. I gazed off the side, watching the images rippling upon the surface of the water, peeking at him surreptitiously every now and then. Seeing him come this close to hitting that other boy had given me a shock, especially since it had been over something so, well, so unimportant. That boy wasn’t the first to call me names, and he wouldn’t be the last, not by a long shot. But after seeing how far Christian would go to put a stop to that—

He did it for me. Because I couldn’t do it for myself.

—and that anger! Where did it come from? The Christian I knew was warm and cheerful and confident and fun to be with. He was friendly to a fault and genuinely nice to people, taking it for granted that people would be nice to him back. But that dark fury that swung from icy and controlled one moment to fiery and explosive the next… It was nothing at all like Ate Grace’s straightforward rages. For one instant, I’d looked into his eyes and saw utter ruthlessness in them, and for the first time, I wondered if another, entirely different Christian existed underneath his charming, prince-like exterior.

Maybe Christian had it in him to be the biggest bully around after all.

“Joy?”

I flinched before I could stop myself, then tried to cover it by fiddling with my blouse. Too late. He’d already seen it, judging from the stricken look in his chocolate eyes. He turned away and began idly thrusting the oars up and down in the water, making the five-year-old boy in the nearby boat yell when he got splashed. “Are you okay?” he asked nonchalantly, not meeting my eyes.

“Yeah.” Then, because I wasn’t about to start lying to him, I added: “You scared me back there.”

He winced, one hand coming up to pull at the hair at his nape. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I just—I really hated it when he called you that. I hate it when people pick on other people, especially people who can’t fight back.”

Something in his voice alerted me. “You’ve gotten this mad about it before?” I asked carefully.

He gave me a miserable look before going back to chopping the water. “I—when I was seven, I almost got kicked out of school.”

“Why?”

“I got into a fight.”

My eyes went wide. “Why?”

“In my class, there was this kid who was kinda small, smaller than the rest of us. He had this robot that he always brought along with him. But there were these bigger kids who kept picking on him, and one day they took his robot and threw it into the canal.”

He stopped and began rowing us toward another corner of the pond. “Then what happened?” I asked, leaning forward.

“I made them look for his robot and give it back.”

My jaw dropped. “And they almost kicked you out of school for that?”

“No. They almost kicked me out after I made sure they’d never pick on him again.” When I didn’t speak, he sighed and began rowing us to some other random direction. “My mom and dad spent a day arguing with the principal and the other kids’ parents. They had to promise to donate a bunch of stuff to the school just so I’d only get suspended and not expelled. My mom was so mad at me that she cried. She thought I didn’t see it, but she was crying on the way home.”

“Hi, Ate Joy!”

I waved distractedly at Faith, my attention focused on Christian. He stared after my sisters with a pensive look on his face. “I’m glad Mommy’s pregnant again,” he suddenly said. “I hope she’ll be happier with the new baby. I hope that when the baby’s here, she and Dad won’t worry so much about me anymore. Because—” he met my gaze, his chocolate eyes filled with both shame and defiance, “—I’d do it again if I had to. I’m sorry, Joy, but I just… They made me apologize to those kids in front of their parents, but the truth was, I wasn’t sorry at all. I’d beat them up all over again if I saw them bully Sammy again. But what I did—I ended up hurting my mom and disappointing my dad and—it was all so messed up.”

I stared at him as the truth in his words sank into me, and realized I’d gotten it wrong. Christian was scary-awful when he got mad and he did have a mean, ruthless streak. But somewhere inside him was a core of kindness and a sense of justice that served to temper his anger. He wasn’t a bully. He was what bullies prayed they’d never meet: somebody who wasn’t afraid to fight back.

And oh, how I wanted to be just like him.

“Christian! Joy! Come on, time’s up!”

We didn’t get a chance to speak again as we headed back to the café, where the baby shower was just about wrapping up. Although he was acting like his usual self again—smiling and grinning and charming up the others again—it didn’t escape my notice that he was avoiding meeting my eyes. I wondered about that until I realized I hadn’t responded to his confession yet. For all he knew, I probably thought he was alarming, a troublemaker and altogether too bothersome to deal with.

As was the way with most female gatherings, the goodbyes took forever while outside, late afternoon turned into early evening. As Nanay and Tita Cathy continued to talk animatedly with their friends while everyone else slowly turned to stone, I went over to Christian and grabbed his hand. “Come with me for a while.”

“Huh? Where’re we going?” he asked as I pulled him out of the café and out onto the grassy fringes of the park until I came upon a concrete bench beside a streetlamp.

“Sit down,” I ordered. He did. Somewhat amazed that my plan had succeeded so far, I suddenly found myself at a loss. Christian was sitting on the bench in front of me, scuffing his shoes against the dirt and watching me warily. My heart pounded and my hands felt clammy, and when I opened my mouth to ask if I could hug him, my throat refused to work. All I ended up doing was blush and fidget and flap my mouth like a beached fish.

Confusion replaced the wariness in his face. “What did we come out here for?”

What indeed? I thought. I wanted desperately to hold him close and comfort him, but it seemed impossible for me with the way he sat there, looking so handsome and unapproachable despite the streaks of grease on his pants, the hot cocoa stains on his collar, and the unkempt state of his hair. His chocolate eyes seemed to pin me to the spot—hold on. Ahah!

“Don’t move, okay?” I told him as I walked around the bench until I was standing behind him, where he couldn’t paralyze me with his gaze. Then I slid my arms over his shoulders and pulled him back into a hug, laying my cheek on the top of his head. “There, that’s better,” I murmured. “I couldn’t do this with you looking—whoa!”

Quick as a flash, he turned in my arms until he was facing me, yanked me down onto the bench beside him, and enfolded me in his arms. I blinked at the sudden reversal, then smiled and wrapped my own arms around him, one hand rubbing his back in soothing circles, the other one toying with his hair. We stayed in that slightly awkward embrace for some time, and soon I felt the tension leave his body, even though his breathing continued to hitch. He tightened his arms around me and buried his face against my shoulder, murmuring something that sounded like “thanks, Turtle”, which made me giggle. I still had no clue why he thought turtles were cuddly, but I totally didn’t mind being called his own, personal turtle, whatever that meant.

Turning my face into his neck, I whispered, “Christian, listen. I’ve got some bad news for you.”

Sniffling carefully, the way someone would when trying to pretend he wasn’t sniffling, he pulled back and dashed his arm over his eyes. I didn’t even bat an eyelash when he wiped his runny nose on his collar. I just reached into my pocket for the hanky I always brought along whenever I was with him and offered it to him. He eyed it with mild curiosity, then wiped his nose on his sleeve again. “What’s the bad news?” he asked in a slightly husky voice.

I sighed. “Take it from somebody with two sisters: Your mom isn’t going to be happier with the new baby than she is with you. She’ll be happiest with the both of you. And she and your dad aren’t going to stop worrying about you just because there’s somebody else to worry about. They love you, Christian. It’s kind of a permanent thing, so—so I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to live with that.”

He stared at me, then ducked his head and nodded, scrubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand again. “You’re scary when you get mad, and honestly, I don’t like it when you fight,” I went on. “But as long as you do it to protect people, especially the ones who can’t fight back…I gotta admit that’s pretty cool.”

When he looked up in surprise, I grinned and offered him my hanky again, only to have him brush it aside. I huffed in exasperation at his stubbornness before launching into my next point: “About your mom crying after you got suspended, I was thinking maybe she wasn’t crying because she was mad at you. Maybe she was crying because she was mad about what happened to you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what about those kids you fought? The ones bullying your friend. Did they get suspended, too?”

“Yeah.”

“Same as you?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, how fair is that?” I exclaimed indignantly. “They were the ones who’d been picking on that kid for ages. You only fought to protect him that one time. And you ended up getting the same punishment? And worse, you had to apologize to them?” When he blinked at that, I crossed my arms in front of me and said with an air of finality: “You know, I bet that’s why your mom was crying. She was just so mad at how unfair your punishment was that it made her cry.”

Christian looked stunned. Taking advantage of his motionlessness, I darted in and cleaned up his face with the hanky. Good grief, he even managed to make salt water running down his face look messy. “One more thing. I want to make a deal with you,” I said briskly.

He started to grin. “Yeah? What kind of deal?”

“Don’t ever get into a fight because of me again.”

His grin vanished. “I can’t promise you that.”

I tilted my head agreeably. “Okay, but what if I promise you that I’ll get strong enough to fight for myself? That way, you won’t need to fight for me.”

Once again, I managed to render him speechless. “Boys protect girls,” he finally stated with rock-like implacability. “We’re stronger than you, and that’s why we’re supposed to be doing the fighting, not you.”

I refrained from sharing Ate Grace’s likely opinion of that tidbit with him. Instead, I flicked his forehead lightly with a finger. “I don’t mean actually punching someone out. I mean I’m going to learn to stand up for myself. Just wait and see, Christian. One day I’ll be somebody you won’t need to protect.”

Christian gazed at me for a long moment, then nodded solemnly. “Okay, I got it. But I still can’t promise you that no-fighting thing.”

“Fair enough,” I conceded.

We shook hands to seal the deal, then Christian’s grin flashed again. “Now it’s my turn to tell you something: If you want a hug, Joy, just go right ahead and hug me. Heh, you looked kinda silly bouncing in front of me, like you had to go to the bathroom or something.”

My face turned beet red, making him laugh outright. My embarrassment complete, I jumped to my feet and began pacing up and down, my brain scrambling about for a comeback. Finally, I hit upon it. “Fine, but in exchange, you’ll have to let yourself cry in front of me, too,” I declared, halting right in front of him and watching with satisfaction as his laughter abruptly died. Then I smiled to soften the words, and went on quietly: “You know, you don’t have to pretend you’re not crying when you’re with me, Christian. It’s okay. It’ll be our little secret. S-so you can be a cry-baby around me, too, just like I can be a cry-baby around you. Um, what do you think?”

My bluster crumbled to dust as he continued to stare at me. There was a strange intensity in his chocolate eyes that I’d never seen before. In response, my heart began to race as that soft, fluttery warmth filled me inside. “You’re not mad, are you?” I said nervously, drawing closer to better see his expression. “Hey, say somethi—mmph!”

The moment I got within range, he snagged my collar with a finger and tugged downward, leaning forward at the same time, until our lips crashed together. The sting I felt when the force of his momentum pushed my lip against my teeth quickly faded when his lips moved against mine, warm and tender and faintly salty and utterly irresistible. Behind my closed eyelids, the fluttery warmth exploded like fireworks. It was a different kind of kiss from the first one we shared way back during his aunt’s wedding reception. This kiss seemed…older, somehow. More powerful, more intent, and more…and more…

He pulled away, and I became aware that I was leaning over him with my hands clutching at his shoulders. With a gasp, I took a wobbly step back, touching my fingers to my lips and blushing so hard I wondered if I was about to faint. He watched me with a mixture of the warm affection I associated with Christian, and the strange, knowing intensity that made him seem much older than nine-going-on-ten. “I’m not mad,” he drawled, giving me a lazy, crooked smile. “I’m just thinking I can’t wait to marry you, Joy.”

“Ah,” was all I could say as I blushed even harder. Then the question that had been nagging me for over a year now drifted through my mind. “W-wait, I need to know—”

“Here they are! Ate Joy! Kuya Christian! Come on, it’s time to go home already! Jeez, do you have any idea how long we’ve been looking for you two?”

I didn’t know if I was relieved or disappointed when Faith came barreling toward us, her long pigtails flying, an impatient scowl on her face. Duly busted, we had no choice but to present ourselves to the irate crowd waiting outside the café, although, of course, it only took Christian a few minutes to convince everyone to forgive and forget. I stayed in the background and let him do his thing, trying to ignore the other girl’s jealous, disbelieving glare when she saw us walking together hand-in-hand. I also pretended not to notice Nanay and Tita Cathy, a pair of Cupids on a mission, exchanging gleeful looks. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as easy to ignore Ate Grace’s teasing about being all lovey-dovey with my boyfriend and losing track of the time, and it also took no less than a full-on tickle attack to neutralize Faith’s threats to tell Tatay that she’d seen me kissing Christian. She was bluffing, of course. At least, I was seventy percent sure she was.

I surfaced from my memories to find myself touching the white bootie to my mouth, trying to relive the feeling of Christian’s lips on mine. It was nearly two months before I saw him again. We belonged to two different worlds, after all, and the precious few times we did get to see each other always seemed like a dream to me. But the memory of that kiss sustained me through days, weeks and months of being teased and called names and ignored in school. My memories of Christian were my talisman. As long as I had them—as long as I had him—I knew I was going to be okay, no matter what happened.

Of course, there was also the knowledge that I, dumpy, dark-skinned, limp-haired, shy and quiet Joy Althea de Castro, had been kissed by a boy as cool, handsome, charming and totally prince-like as Christian Dominic Garcia—and not just once, too, mind you—while all the other girls in my class could only dream of such a thing happening to them. That helped to cheer me up considerably.

I glanced at the clock, and realized with a jolt that I was almost out of time. Laying the bootie aside, I dug to the bottom of the tin until I unearthed a thin stack of envelopes. I took the one on the very top and slipped it into my school bag. Underneath the stack of envelopes were a few photographs. Most of them were from Christian’s birthday party, but two were taken during Tita Cathy’s baby shower. I took out my favorite: a photo of Christian in the playground. He was standing in the middle of a seesaw, his arms held out at his sides as he balanced himself on the narrow, metal tube while Faith and the other girl sat on either end. He was grinning his trademark lopsided grin, his dimple flickering, his straight, black bangs falling over one eye. His blue plaid shirt was askew, and his jeans were already scuffed-up at the knees even though they hadn’t acquired the grease-stains yet. He looked impossibly good-looking, gloriously animated, and absolutely, wonderfully Christian.

The photo blurred as tears filled my eyes. I missed him so much.

There was a rattling noise as the doorknob was turned, followed by a bang as a pair of hands slammed forcefully against the door. I jumped while beside me, Siopao raised his head and looked annoyed at having his nap interrupted. Just as I thought, our broken-down lock didn’t stand a chance; the chair wedged underneath the doorknob was the only thing keeping the door from flying wide open. “What the hell?” Ate Grace swore as she tried to peer in through the crack. “Open up, Joy. Did you stick that chair underneath the doorknob again? This is my room, too, you know.”

“Coming! Just a minute.” I slid the photographs back underneath the envelopes, snatched up the crimson velvet bag and stuck it into the pocket of my shorts, then crammed everything else back into the tin box and clicked the padlock shut. All the while, Ate Grace kept up a steady stream of complaints about my lack of consideration for the other occupants of the room, with Faith joining in after a while. So much for my moment of nostalgia, I sighed inwardly.

The moment I removed the chair, the door crashed open, allowing my roommates to spill in. “What were you doing in here?” Faith demanded as she threw herself onto our bed. “I bet you were looking at your collection of Kuya Christian’s stuff again, weren’t you? Weren’t you, weren’t you, weren’t you?” 

“I wasn’t,” I protested, even though my guilty flush totally gave me away. “A-anyway, it’s none of your business,” I added haughtily.

My evil little sister snickered. “Hey, what’s it like to have a boyfriend, Ate Joy? Didn’t Kuya Christian give you cooties? Come on, tell, tell, te—”

“Mute button, activate!” I cried, grabbing my pillow and hitting her over the head with it.

“Who cares about boyfriends?” Ate Grace grumbled as she hopped back down from her upper bunk, a Math textbook in hand. “Joy, can you check my homework for me?”

With a sigh, I sat on the floor beside her, took the opened textbook and a pencil and scanned the number problems. “Just a couple of mistakes,” I said after a while, making a few marks on the page. “You’ve got to be careful where you put the parentheses and brackets, or you’ll run into problems simplifying the expressions.”

“What? Lemme see that.” Ate Grace dragged the textbook over to her lap, frowned, and redid the numbers I’d marked. “Yeeesh, how come you know how to do algebra when you’re only in fifth grade?” she said, eyeing me suspiciously.

I rolled my eyes. “I was right beside you when Nanay tutored you, remember? I guess only one of us paid attention.”

“Plus, Ate Joy’s just that much smarter,” Faith announced as she sat cross-legged on the mattress, giving Siopao a good reason to remain an insomniac for the rest of his life. “But don’t feel bad, Ate Grace,” she chirped. “If algebra was a guy you could beat up with your fists, I’m sure you’d have clobbered him by now. You’d have gone hyaah! and hyaah! and keeyaaah! Bam! Algebra, you’re dead.”

“Oh shut up, you chattering parrot,” Ate Grace growled. “See if I bake you fudge brownies ever again after this. And stop torturing the cat, will you?”

Faith’s face crumpled. “No, please, Ate Grace! Please bake me brownies! Your clobbering fists are the best when it comes to fudge. Please, please, ple—”

“Mute button, activate!” Ate Grace shouted, grabbing my pillow and hitting Faith over the head with it. I watched my sisters’ antics with fond amusement, and wondered if Christian would have moments like these with his own baby brother, who was over a year old by now. I sincerely hoped so. For all that he was used to being the center of attention, I knew Christian would be a wonderful older brother, and having a baby brother to protect and to care for and to teach all about how to get into trouble would make him really happy.

As for me, I hoped Faith wouldn’t mind if I took her words to heart. Then again, I knew I was smart, anyway. Truth to tell, I was the best in my class, even though only a few people in my school, including my teachers, seemed to realize it. I was fat and ugly and practically the opposite of charming, not to mention our family was just barely skimming above broke. But I was also smart and good in school, and, above all, I was determined to work hard. Right now, those were about the only things I had going for me.

No, that wasn’t right. I had Christian, too. He believed in me. And I’d promised him, after all. And although I couldn’t understand why, couldn’t figure out how—couldn’t believe I had the gall to even dare to think this—some part of me thought that he loved me, too. Loved me the way I loved him. Even just a little bit.

My hand crept into my pocket and closed around the ring wrapped in velvet. Help me, please, I prayed. I’m finally going to make good on my promise to you. I’ll be someone strong enough to stand up on her own. And it’s all going to start tomorrow.

The next day, with Christian’s wedding-promise ring hanging from a ribbon next to my heart and my memories of him fresh in my mind, I gave voice to my dream to enter St. Helene Academy for the very first time.

READ PART 2: THE WEDDING VOWS, CHAPTER 3

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