As we came down, we could hear Markus in the living room talking fervently with Abby’s mom. Dominating the conversation, in fact, which was apparently about our town’s history, of all the surprising things.
“…especially after the war. We used to be pretty isolated before, with the hills on one side and the Sierra Madre range on the other. My great-grandpa envisioned this town as a kind of ideal community that we could hold up as an example. From what he wrote, I think he intended to use it as a gigantic in-your-face against American colonial rule. But when the highway was cut through the hills in the 1960s to connect us to—” He glanced toward us as we came downstairs, did a double take when he saw me, and immediately began to stumble over his words. “—t-to Metro Manila, the town, uh, changed a lot…after that…”
He gave up and stared openly at me, two flags of color appearing high in his cheeks. Later, I’d remember his reaction and savor the feeling it gave me—a guy had actually been rendered speechless by the sight of me, and in a good way too, it seemed—but at the moment, I was too busy staring back at him to appreciate his appreciation. Was he for real? Honestly, his enthusiasm when he spoke about the past and his great-grandfather’s ideas was downright riveting. I searched his face for any sign that he was putting on some kind of act for Abby’s mom, and found only chagrin, self-consciousness and a dazed sort of confusion, as if he was having a bit of trouble shifting gears in the middle of a conversation. Then I recalled hearing that same animation in his voice when he regaled me about the history of our high school—both actual and fictional—during our ghost-hunting expedition. Wow, and this was the same guy who needed a kick in the butt to get him to write a report for English or Science or to work on his set problems in Math? Would wonders ever cease.
Wiping his hands on his jeans, he got to his feet, his tiny wince betraying the moment he realized he was being rude to the females who’d just entered the room. I was fascinated by this glimpse into another side of him—Markus the history nerd, who could be shy and awkward at times. A wave of fondness swept through me, and I couldn’t help but smile at him.
“Um, hi,” he said, his blush deepening. “Me and Mrs. Cruz were just, uh, talking.”
“Indeed, we were, although for a while there I was mostly just listening,” Abby’s mom said, eyeing Markus thoughtfully.
He winced again, one hand coming up to rub the back of his head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to go on and on.”
“Oh no, I found your narration quite interesting, not to mention informative. And if you recall, I was the one who asked first,” Abby’s mom countered with a smile.
“Mom, you didn’t ask him any of your weird questions, did you?” Abby demanded, then spun around to face Markus before her mother could answer. “I’m so sorry. She’s a journalist so being incredibly nosy is kind of her job, but you don’t have to—”
Her mom chuckled, and for a moment, the resemblance between her and her daughter was unmistakable. “Calm down, Abigail, I didn’t interrogate him. I just asked him what he thought about the public high school that recently opened across town, and he kindly gave me, shall we say, a long-range view on it. But now that I see you and Sienna together…” She leaned back against the couch, her gaze shifting from Markus to me. “I still can’t believe you’re that same little boy who used to dog Sienna all the time. I remember when she was younger, Sienna was constantly chasing after a small pack of boys while towing around an even younger boy.”
“My little brother, Ziggy,” I said with a sigh. “And yes, Markus was part of that pack of brats who tried their best to drive me crazy.” I smiled at him again to take away the sting of my words, and he smiled back, letting me know he understood. Somewhere in the background, Cassie and Lynne tittered in unison.
“My, you’ve certainly grown,” Abby’s mom remarked to Markus. Then her gaze darted back to me, her finger pushing her glasses up her nose. “And he’s here to pick you up, Sienna?”
I struggled to maintain my expression. Here it was, the part I’d been dreading all night: lying to my best friend’s mom. “Yes, Tita.”
“He’ll be the one to take her home, since they’re close family friends and all,” Abby interjected quickly, trying to take the burden off me.
“Plus, he’s got a car and chauffer,” Lynne added.
“She’ll be perfectly safe with him, Tita,” Cassie put in earnestly, which didn’t really help matters.
Abby’s mom lifted an eyebrow as she took in my appearance. “And you’re going straight home from here?” she asked with deceptive mildness.
To my surprise, it was Markus who answered this time. “No, Ma’am. We have to make a stop at my house first since my dad is checking in on me tonight. After that, we’ll probably go out for something to eat before we drive her home.” He gave me a sheepish glance when he noticed the look on my face. “Sorry, I should’ve told you. I hope you don’t mind dropping by my house for a while, Ate.”
“Not at all,” I replied, shaking my head. I could tell that, unlike the four of us, he was sticking with the truth—smart move, considering Abby’s mom was an expert at detecting the slightest hint of a lie and pouncing on it. His sincerity worked to score him points in her books, going by the look on her face. I was secretly impressed with his astuteness. Disappointed that our date was apparently going to be a short one, but impressed nonetheless.
“I see,” Abby’s mom murmured, and I had the uncomfortable feeling that she really did see. Finally, she rose to her feet and smiled. “Well, we won’t keep you any longer. Just take care, and I do hope you visit more often, Sienna, before you four girls leave for college in June.”
“I will, Tita. Thank you for having me.” I stepped closer to give her a brief hug. Over her shoulder, I mouthed thank you to my three friends, who grinned back.
“And as for you.” Abby’s mom turned to Markus and extended her hand to shake his. “I assume you’ve got protection and you know how to use it?”
Markus’ polite smile remained pinned in place, looking increasingly incongruous in the midst of the shock rippling across his features. “Uh, what?”
“Mom!” Abby squawked, scarlet-faced, looking about three seconds away from physically tackling her mother to the floor. “You promised, no awkward questions! What’re you doing?”
Her mother donned an expression that could have graced a statue of the Buddha. “I just want to make sure, sweetie. You kids are at an age where you’re exploring certain aspects of human life, and that’s perfectly natural. But at no point do I want there to be any accidents. I’m saying this in the place of Sienna’s mother, and as a mother myself. You have no excuse not to be careful. Don’t you agree, Markus?” she asked pointedly.
I am absolutely mortified to admit that I didn’t understand what she’d meant by “protection”—despite Abby’s thunderous slap-to-the-forehead, despite Cassie’s gasp, and despite Lynne’s maniacal laugh that she barely managed to smother. That is, until I glanced up at Markus and found he’d turned such a deep shade of crimson that it seemed as if every drop of blood in his body had congealed in his head. All at once, it hit me, and I squeaked “oh my God” and clapped both hands to my face to keep the flames from scorching the ceiling.
Markus shot me a hunted look. “Y-yes, Ma’am,” he croaked.
“So what’s it going to be, young man?”
“I—we—I’m—I’ve…got protection, Mrs. Cruz,” he said, his expression going from panic-stricken to facing-the-burning-pyre-of-martyrdom.
“You what?” I gaped at him while Lynne cooed “oooh, you beast” in the background, but he doggedly refused to meet my gaze.
Abby’s mom beamed. “That’s what I want to hear. Now you kids go on—”
“Yes, please, please leave before she says anything else,” Abby begged.
“—and have fun. And Sienna, send my regards to your mother, all right?”
A few minutes later, we were sitting stiffly in the back seat of his family car—a sleek, silver Lexus—the both of us facing away from each other as we stared out our respective windows, with my backpack positioned between us like some kind of protective barrier. As the car purred it way through the quiet streets of our town, I replayed the last, outrageous conversation with Abby’s mom in my head, over and over, until I couldn’t hold back any longer.
“What the hell do you mean, you’ve got protection?” I exploded, turning to face him.
He whipped around and yelled in my face: “What the hell else was I supposed to say?”
“Oh, I don’t know! How about anything other than that?”
“Oh yeah? Did you see the look on her face? If I’d given her the wrong answer, she’d never have let you get within fifty feet of me, let alone get into a car with me.”
I crossed my arms over my chest and gave him a hard stare. “So it’s a lie then? You don’t actually have a c-condom with you?”
He opened his mouth, paused, then closed it again. “It’s not exactly a lie,” he muttered while a sound like a laugh turned hastily into a cough drifted from the direction of the driver’s seat.
My jaw dropped. “Oh my God, really? You mean you’ve…” My thoughts charged through my mind faster than my mouth could form the words, a horrible train of images and flashes of understanding that tunneled through my chest. Well, of course, he’s not a virgin. All those girls he’d been with, all pretty, feminine and sexy …Of course, he’d been with them that way…
“Hey, knock it off.” A pair of hands clamped on my shoulders and gave me a shake. When I blinked at him, he let go and fixed me an irritated look. “Whatever it is you’re thinking, you’re wrong so stop it. I’ve never—I mean, look, it’s not what you obviously think it is.”
The constriction in my chest loosened, letting me breathe easily again. “Then what is it?” I groused. “Honestly, what other reason is there for you to have a condom?”
He faced forward, sparing a moment to glower suspiciously at the driver’s seat. “Kuya Rey, seems to me you’re taking the scenic route back home. What gives?”
“Roadworks in the usual route, son,” their chauffeur replied, as affable as only a person telling a blatant untruth so as to prolong his enjoyment in watching his young master squirm could be.
“Don’t try to wriggle your way out of this one, Markus,” I warned.
“Hmm.” For a few moments, he seemed to be considering other possible escape routes, then he gave up and slumped back in his seat with a long sigh. “Last year, a couple of ladies—they were like in their twenties or something—came up to Dante, Daniel and me near the mall. They were visiting our town, they said, and they wanted us to show them around. They seemed interested and—look, we’re hormonal, delusional idiots, okay? And like I said, those girls seemed really interested. So we kinda…we took them to a café and they said they’d wait for us while we went to look for a store where we could buy what we were convinced we were going to need later on. But we took too long or something—you don’t know how hard it is to act like a suave player who knows what he’s doing when you’re all pimply and weirdly shaped and your voice is Van Damme doing the splits all the time. Whatever the reason, when we got back, the girls were gone and we were stuck with the bill.”
“Are you serious?” I pictured the entire ridiculous scenario in my head, and burst out laughing. “Wow, that was dumb.”
“Yeah, well, like I said, we’re hormonal idiots,” he replied with a rueful chuckle, his mood lifting at my reaction. “Anyway, as far as I know, all three of us kept those condoms as part of our solemn oath never to be caught unprepared again.”
“Honestly, that’s just—wait, hold on, you’re telling me my brothers are packing rubbers, too?” I demanded as horror momentarily elbowed my mirth aside.
He gave me an amused smile. “I realize this may come as a shock to you, Sienna, but there are some things a guy won’t tell his older sister. Just do me a favor and don’t tell them I told you, okay? They’d hang me upside down from the school’s rooftop for sure.”
I shook my head as my brain struggled to process the idea of my brothers being hit on by older ladies and purchasing condoms with intent to use them. Well, at least it wasn’t Ziggy. The twins were disposable, but please, not my sweet, innocent baby brother. Then another, more pressing thought occurred to me. “We are not using protection, you got that?”
Markus stared blankly at me, while a spate of coughing erupted from the driver’s seat. I mentally replayed what I’d just said, and blushed furiously. “I mean, we’re not going to need protection.”
“Okaaaay,” he said, his voice hoarse with suppressed laughter.
I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose as the heat radiating from my face did battle with the car’s AC. “Ugh, no, that’s not what I meant. What I mean is that we won’t be…you know…”
“Here we are.” Kuya Rey drove through the electronic gates and up the curving driveway—I hadn’t even realized we’d already reached Markus’ house—then stopped the car and looked over his shoulder at us. “Shall I tell Gina and the others that it’ll be fine to bring you refreshments later, Sir?” he asked blandly.
Markus grinned back. “You heard the lady. We won’t be…you know…so Ate Gina and the others will probably be safe.”
“Whatever, you two.”
Rolling my eyes, I grabbed my backpack and threw myself out of the car before either male could stop laughing silently long enough to help me out. I ground to halt before I could reach the metal-and-glass double front doors, and it wasn’t just the sight of four maids in identical uniforms standing in a neat row beside the door that threw me. It was the house itself, a three-storey monstrosity of white concrete, gray stone and black steel. With its high, sloping roof, clean, rigid lines, high-tech security and environmental features, and vast, floor-to-ceiling windows all ablaze with lights, the house was designed to be a grand showcase of the best that modern architecture and a freakish amount of money can offer. And it worked, too. The Lozada manor was efficient, imposing and breathtaking, especially when viewed from a distance where it seemed to jut out of the hill overlooking the rest of our subdivision like a massive crystal shard, drawing the awed attention of tourists and magazine photographers alike. But up close, it just seemed too much of what it was designed to be—a flashy, ostentatious piece of art—and too little of what it was supposed to be, that is, an actual home. Despite the warm light pouring out the windows and the curious looks on the faces of three of the four maids greeting us, there was something cold and unwelcoming about the house, a general air of “look but don’t touch” more befitting a museum or a gallery.
“You’re home earlier than usual, Markus. For once.” The most senior of the maids, a middle-aged one Markus called Ate Gina who was more housekeeper than maid, stepped forward just as Markus drew alongside me, a faintly disapproving note threading through her voice. “Of course, we welcome unexpected guests, no matter the hour,” she remarked as if in answer to some unspoken question, her impassive gave flicking over to me.
I stiffened, but Markus simply took my hand. “Come on, Ate Gina, don’t act like she’s a stranger or something. Don’t you remember Sienna? Dante and Daniel’s sister?” he said, sounding almost convincingly casual and relaxed.
The corners of Ate Gina’s mouth stretched upward into a reasonable facsimile of a smile. “Yes, of course. Hello, Sienna. You haven’t visited in a while, unlike your brothers.” That was certainly true; the last time I’d set foot inside this house was five years ago. The Demolition Crew, on the other hand, occasionally came over to Markus’ house during the summer to make use of the swimming pool in the backyard, but for some reason, they never visited as often or stayed over for as long as one might’ve thought, despite the house’s opulence. They could much more often be found in our house, Markus included. I guess even they could sense the house’s chilly intolerance toward people who weren’t quite of the same class and status. Or more likely, Markus’ dislike of the place had infected them, too.
“I’ve been busy,” I replied with equally fake politeness. The younger maids smiled and nodded at me. I nodded back until Ate Gina turned and frowned at her subordinates.
“Well, come on in, Ate Sienna.”
Before anyone else could say a word, Markus pulled me inside—into the wide foyer with the gleaming marble floor, its glowing chandelier shaped like an oversized onion bulb hanging from the cavernous ceiling, and enormous framed piece of abstract art mounted on a wall—heading toward the winding stairs. “We’ve got a very early morning appointment, so I thought it’d be faster if Ate Sienna just stayed here until then. I’ve already informed Kuya Rey about it,” he said, addressing Ate Gina, his voice and our footsteps echoing throughout the silent hallway. “And don’t worry about feeding us either. We’ll just make something in the kitchen later.”
“Should we prepare a guest room for her then?”
“No.” He stopped in the middle of the stairs, forcing me to stop as well, then turned and looked Ate Gina in the eye. “She stays with me,” he stated implacably.
A pause, then as though he hadn’t spoken: “Your father faxed a message earlier. It’s in the machine in the alcove. Fortunately for all of us, the message doesn’t require your reply.”
With that, she murmured goodnight, then she and the other maids left. I looked up at Markus, who seemed to have gone completely still at the news that his father had made contact. Without a word, he let go of my hand and continued up the stairs, leaving me no choice but to follow. We headed down the corridor of the second floor that, like the foyer, was all white and gray and spotless, lit up by wall lamps shaped like globes and brightened up with more framed paintings of abstract art. In the middle of the corridor was an alcove with a table illuminated by an art deco lamp; upon the table were a telephone and a fax machine. As he tore out the sheet of paper extruding from the machine and read the message, I glanced around, reliving the awe I’d felt long ago when I first came here. Honestly, the place looked more like a hotel than somebody’s home. Even the air smelled professional—a mixture of lemon-scented furniture polish and fresh flowers. Experimentally, I ran a finger along the top of one of the framed paintings, then inspected my finger. Absolutely dust-free. I would’ve had to quit school altogether and work as a housekeeper full-time just to get our house even half as immaculate as this. Correction: I would have to quit school and use the money for my tuition to hire an army of cleaners just to get our house even halfway as decent.
The sound of crumpling paper—loud in the stark silence in the hallway—made me turn, just in time to see Markus toss the message from his dad into the trashcan and stalk away, his expression stony. On impulse, I retrieved the message from the trashcan and straightened it out. The message was hand-written on the official stationery of Lozada Land Holdings, Inc., and it was brief: Markus, My apologies but due to pressing appointments, I am unable to come for this April’s commencement exercise. Your stepmother and Gary will attend on my behalf. Instruct Gina to prepare the house. I will try to visit by May. In the meantime, I want you to know that your stepmother and brother are looking forward to seeing you. Dad
“Markus—” I looked up, realized I was alone in the corridor, ran after him and found him waiting for me at the foot of another set of winding stairs leading up to the third floor. “Markus, your stepmom and older brother, are they—”
He raised a finger to his lips in a shushing gesture, then moved his head sideways, warning me that somebody might be listening in. “Not here. Let’s go up to my room. We’ll talk there.”
His was the only room on the third floor. More of a loft, really, and it was the only place I’d seen so far that showed signs that an actual human being inhabited it. Like every other part of the house, the walls, floors, and ceiling were all done in white, gray and black, but the pillows and blanket on his neatly made bed were bright blue and red—Superman’s colors—and instead of inexplicable splotches of paint on a canvas, his walls were covered with posters of his favorite movies and rock bands, interspersed with hooks from which hung various articles of clothing. A guitar case was propped up beside his study desk, a memento of the time he’d taken classical guitar lessons only to quit after a year or two, while a violin case rested on the shelf above the bed’s headboard, although violin lessons hadn’t lasted as long as guitar lessons had. From one corner of his bookshelf hung his tennis racket in its cover, while on the floor beside the flat-screen TV and game console lay his basketball and soccer ball. And on the wall beside the shelf were the two banners he’d won in the two martial arts competitions he’d joined just before he quit the dojo—a blue one, signifying second place, and a red one, for first place.
I walked into the middle of the room, gazing around me in fascination, while Markus closed the door behind me. When I was younger, I was often awestruck by the sheer size of his room—more than twice the size of the room I shared with Ziggy, and it came with its own bathroom, too. And while it seemed smaller now than the stadium of my childhood memories, it was still impressively roomy, and it had none of the hoity-toity air of the rest of the house. Instead, it was Markus through and through. It even smelled like him, and I found myself taking a deep breath, soaking in the familiar scent that was permeating the room.
“You’re not going to smell anything funky in here,” he spoke up, sounding smug. “I cleaned this place up earlier. You can even check under the bed if you want.”
“Brave of you to offer. I suppose you’ve gotten rid of any and all incriminating evidence?” I countered, turning around to face him, then stopped. “W-why’re you looking at me like that?”
He was leaning against the door, his hands in the pockets of his jeans, staring at me with a strange, soft look on his face. At my question, he blushed and looked away. “Nothing. I just can’t believe you’re actually here,” he said with a self-conscious little laugh, one hand coming up to rub his nose. “I mean, it’s been a while.”
“It has, hasn’t it?” I murmured as a funny, humming feeling invaded my body, starting from my nerve endings. “You know, I’m getting a feeling of déjà vu,” I added with a giggle that sounded a tad breathless. “Abby said something similar a while ago—like she couldn’t even remember the last time I’d stayed late at her house.”
“Yeah, well, I’m pretty sure Abby’s feelings about it aren’t the same as mine.”
My heart jumped just as Markus’ gunmetal eyes met mine. The humming feeling moved over me like tiny fingers brushing across my skin, and when he began walking toward me, I found myself unable to move. My backpack and the letter from Markus’ dad both dropped to the floor but I didn’t even notice, because it was right at that moment that a few crucial facts began to register in my consciousness.
Beginning with Fact No. 1: We were alone in his room. In his bedroom. With his bed just a foot or two behind me. His wide, spacious bed.
He stopped in front of me, so close I had to tilt my face up to look into his eyes. Then he lifted both hands and ran his fingers through my hair, brushing the strands off my face.
“Sienna,” he said, his voice low and slightly rough, and I nearly closed my eyes. See-Ann-na. How could he make my name sound so beautiful?
Fact No. 2: I was alone with a boy. A boy who wasn’t in any way related to me. A cute, undeniably sexy boy who, as unbelievable as it was, seemed as attracted to me as I was to him.
“I wanted to tell you earlier. You look—” He flushed, swallowed and tried again. “You’re beautiful. And I don’t even care if you believe me or not,” he added almost defensively.
Fact No. 3: This cute, undeniably sexy boy was Markus. Markus. And somehow, that made both no difference and all the difference in the world. Because something had changed. I had changed. The way I felt for Markus now was…
“I believe you,” I said. And smiled at him. Tilted my face up to his, and thought with all my might: Kiss me now.
His gunmetal eyes darkening, he cupped my face and leaned closer to do just that.