Once upon a time, there was a beautiful kingdom that was almost hidden from the rest of the world by a high, concrete barricade. In this kingdom lived a handsome, young prince, who was well-loved by all. One day, he went traveling to a distant land, promising to return. The kingdom waited and waited, but he never came back. Nobody knew what had become of him, or when or if he would ever return.
The kingdom mourned the loss of its prince. Eventually, the missing prince became a story, a legend passed around among the kingdom’s subjects. One day, he will return, they whispered. One day, our prince will reappear, his face as bright and fierce as the sun, and take his rightful place in the kingdom. Then all will be well once again.
– – – – – – – –
I woke up to darkness. Blinking the grit from my eyes, I craned my neck to peer at the patches of black-blue sky visible between the pitch-black branches of the bani tree growing beside my window. I felt for the small alarm clock tucked between the wall and the mattress of my bunkbed. Three minutes to 4:30. I’d woken up before the alarm went off again.
Feeling pleased with myself, I sat up and stretched, then tugged down the hem of my nightgown, which had hiked up to my middle sometime during the night. Looking out my window again, I hopped down from my bunkbed, shucked off my nightgown and laid it atop the empty bunk opposite mine, then pulled on the white T-shirt and old, gray sweatpants I’d set aside the night before. As I put on my tennis shoes, I scanned the row of colorful Post-it notes I’d stuck all along the edge of the empty bunk like square-shaped buntings—little reminders I’d strategically placed where I would see them first thing in the morning. It was still too dark to read what I’d written on them, but I knew what most of them said: “Laundry – tom., 8:15 sharp”; “Do linear equations, p.28-29”; “Noli Me Tangere, chap. 1 quiz Tues.;” “Science – Meet with group abt project proposal Fri. pm”; “Design, answer questions chap. 2”, “Clean room – Mon pm,” and so on.
The brightly colored squares of paper weren’t limited to just the edge of the unoccupied bed, though. They were everywhere—stuck all over my desktop shelves and on the surface of my desk, strewn across the wall above the small cabinet that served as my dresser and the door of my wardrobe, stuck in a column above the doorknob, and even stuck on some of my personal belongings. Post-its were arranged in neat rows on the cork board I hung from the row of hooks on the wall beside the door. And naturally, all my textbooks, workbooks and notebooks—even some of the library books I’d borrow, which probably annoyed the next borrower—all had Post-its stuck in them, either serving as bookmarks or as markers for notes I made. I’d developed an addiction to colorful Post-its sometime during my prep year in St. Helene, and now that I was lucky enough to have a room all to myself, I really went to town with it, so much so that Jenneth had commented dryly that my dorm room looked as if it had been struck by some kind of obsessive-compulsive hurricane.
But while I had a habit of overdoing it with the Post-its, it was easy enough for me to wave it away. I was allowed one guilty indulgence, wasn’t I? Okay, two guilty indulgences, I amended as my gaze fell upon the rows of paperbacks filling the desk tucked underneath the unoccupied bunkbed. I rationalized my collection of ripped-bodice paperback romances purchased from secondhand bookstores as an improvement over the Valentine romances I’d obsessed over in grade school. Not much of an improvement, but still…
I took a hair-tie from a basket on my dresser and scraped my fine, shoulder-length hair up into a ponytail, which unfortunately tended to wilt instead of bounce, then strapped on the cheap watch my sisters had given me last Christmas. Grabbing a small towel, the old, pink MP3 player that was a hand-me-down from Maisha, and my room key from one of the hooks on the wall, I slipped out and walked soundlessly through the corridor, past half a dozen doors identical to mine except for our personalized name-plates. I trotted down the stairs and waved to Kuya Berto, the security guard on duty in the lobby. He barely glanced at me as he waved back; just like everyone else at Ascension House—or simply the House, as we residents called it—he’d long since gotten used to my early-morning routine.
Stepping outside, I breathed in the cool, gray air and did my stretching exercises right there on the stairs. After over a week of unrelenting rain, a mere mist was a welcome break. I checked my watch—4:43. Yes. Right on schedule.
With that, I stuck my earphones into my ears, put on some upbeat, hiphop music, and started jogging down the length of Hyacinth Street. I passed the Admin Building to my left, past Annie’s Park to my right, a mini-forest that often smelled of ylang-ylang, where the Marian statue we all called Annie held forth. Then I turned right and, with arms outstretched at my sides like wings, ran pell-mell down the incline of Sampaguita Street, the main street within St. Helene, with its graceful rows of trees on either side of it. The whole St. Helene campus was located on a hill, and Sampaguita Street was the wide, concrete road connecting the preschool and elementary complex at the hill’s summit with the high school complex further down the slope, and finally leading to the gym, soccer field and track oval at the bottom of the hill, then turning left and coming to an end at the auditorium right beside the north gate of the campus.
I let gravity propel me across the grassy field, past the risers, and onto the oval running track that surrounded the empty soccer field. It was still too early even for the most dedicated members of St. Helene’s soccer or track team—I should know, as I took great care in timing my routine so as to avoid encountering the athletes, or anyone else for that matter. The dome of the gym rose above the mist on one side of the field like the back of some monster, its blue, gold and white flanks slowly gaining clarity as the sky grew lighter. I did a few laps around the track, then gathered myself for a burst of energy, and ran back up Sampaguita Street’s incline, huffing and puffing as I pumped my legs, until I reached the chapel at the top of the hill. I stood outside the chapel and said a quick prayer, then peeked at the large, Victorian-style house beside the chapel that served as the home and office of St. Helene’s chaplain. The house was still dark, except for a glow coming from a second-story room. Father Ramilo was already up, probably preparing his lesson plan for the day. It had seemed strange to me at first that the school’s head spiritual representative and counselor would also be the most reputedly severe high school math teacher. But as I grew more used to life in St. Helene, I realized it made sense to have Father Ramilo give juniors and seniors both a desire to aim for heaven and a taste of what the alternative would be like.
I ran back down Sampaguita Street, swerving to the right at the corner of Hyacinth Street, then strolled the rest of the way back to the House. Kuya Berto looked up from behind the lobby desk as I came in, wiping my face with the towel.
“You’re not wearing your poncho anymore. No more rain?” he asked.
“No rain,” I replied. “But it’s all cloudy and heavy outside so it’ll probably rain later.”
He cast me a look. “You go jogging in any kind of weather. Rain or shine. You sure you’re not interested in sports? A big, healthy girl like you…”
Paused in the middle of the stairs, I smiled. “Definitely. I’m the least athletic person in the world, Kuya Berto. This is just to wake my brain up, that’s all.”
Back in my room, I took the books and notes I’d set aside on the round table that would have served as a communal dining table if I had a roommate to share it with, then sat down at my desk tucked underneath my bunkbed and reviewed the day’s lessons. Thirty minutes later, I packed my books and things into my school satchel, then grabbed my bath towel from the hook, Nanay’s old housedress that I used as a post-shower bathrobe, and the blue plastic bucket that contained my toiletries. The other residents of the girls’ wing were already padding toward one of the communal bathrooms at either end of the corridor, just as I was. One of them was Maisha, who greeted me good morning as I fell into step beside her, bearing her own small basin of toiletries and bath towel.
“I am in soooo much trouble,” Maisha groaned, throwing her head back so that the green hijab that she’d wrapped haphazardly around her head nearly slid off, exposing her thick waves of hair. The House was a coed dorm, which seemed practically revolutionary for a Catholic school but was actually just the result of the administration suddenly realizing that there was a need for a dorm and so had to squeeze one building in the only available space left in the campus. This meant, though, that Maisha had to wear a hanging-around-at-the-House hijab along with her loose, long-sleeved, pajama-like outfits most of the time, but since the boys had temporarily transferred to the first-floor rooms in the girls’ wing and couldn’t see us, she’d been less than assiduous about keeping her headscarf in place whenever she was out and about in the girls’ wing. “I didn’t wake up from my nap last night, so I didn’t get to do any research at all for our Social Science report. Should I just drown myself in the toilet now and save my groupmates the trouble? What do you think?”
“You didn’t tell Honey to wake you up?” I asked, then stopped when I recalled seeing the pretty, petite girl who was Maisha’s current roommate still chatting animatedly with some of the other House kids in the rec room by the time I turned in for the night.
Maisha sent me a deadpan look I’d grown familiar with after almost two years of being her roommate. “What do you think? She forgot, of course. Honey’s great, but let’s face it, the girl’s a bit of a scatterbrain.”
“I’m not a scatterbrain, oy! You’re the one who sleeps like the dead. I went back to wake you like you said, but you just rolled over and told me to go away.”
At the sound of the voice speaking with the distinctive accent of the Bisayan provinces in the south, we turned to see Honey walking right behind us, scowling ferociously yet still managing to look as cute as a kitten, the shampoo and conditioner bottles in her wicker basket quivering with indignation.
“Sorry. Of course you’re not,” I apologized, but Honey was too busy glaring at Maisha, who was sputtering some lame arguments in her defense even though everyone in the House knew that she loved to sleep and laze about just as much as Honey loved to socialize. I observed them fling increasingly silly insults at each other in the bathroom mirror while I brushed my teeth and waited for an available shower stall. The petty squabbling between the two had become a common occurrence since the new school term began, although we had to wonder whom they thought they were fooling. Maisha and Honey had chosen each other to be their roommates this term, and even though they complained loudly about each other’s objectionable habits, we all knew they would never think of asking to change roommates. In truth, watching them like this often sent a pang of homesickness through me. It made me recall my own sisters and their similarly endless bickering, albeit with a tad more physical violence.
Finally, Maisha turned to me, arms on her hips. “Listen, Joy, only you can make this right, so how about you ditch your single status and let me move in with you already?”
I spat out my toothpaste and shook my head, softening my rejection with a smile. “Thanks, but no. This is the first time I’ve ever had a room all to myself, and I’m not giving it up. In fact, I believe I was destined for it,” I added dramatically.
“What do you mean, ‘destined for it?’ You just got lucky at the draw.” Another girl, Annelie, a freshman who was a scholarship kid like me, pretended to punch me in the side.
I grinned. “Luck, destiny, same thing.”
“Like hell it is.” Ate Kath, the most senior among us and the House rep for the female residents, exited a shower stall in a bathrobe, with her hair wrapped in a towel and her basin of toiletries cradled in one arm. “All we have to do is take your name out of the fishbowl before the next draw. How’s that for destiny? You’re probably disqualified by now anyway, am I right?” she said as an aside to Annelie, who nodded, giggling. Then she smiled at me. “Your turn, Joy.”
After showering, I headed back to my room—my own room, as in me only, living solo, with no one else to share it with—and went over to my clothes dryer hanging near the window to exchange my newly washed undies with dry ones. As I changed into the knee-high black socks, pleated, royal blue skirt, and white collared blouse of our school uniform, I gazed about my room—mine and mine alone, muwahahaha! I thought again—and recalled the sequence of events that resulted in me acquiring the unusual and much-coveted position of being the only one with no roommate for this term.
Being roommate-less wasn’t actually an uncommon occurrence, nor was it normally that big a deal, at least until this term. Ascension House was a split-level building shaped like a triangle, with the bridge in the middle for the study hall on the first floor and the rec room on the second floor, plus a roof-less gap at the tip for the garden, with the small building housing the caretaker’s office just beyond. The boys’ wing was on the left side and the girls’ wing on the right. Each wing had a dozen rooms, six on the first floor and six on the second, with two beds in each room. The House didn’t have a lot residents—half a-dozen at most for each year but usually just around four or five—since the vast majority of the students at St. Helene could well afford their own houses, or mansions or condo units as the case may be. The students who did eventually ascend the steps of Ascension House were the ones who were, well, different from the rest, one way or another. They were the ones who, like Honey and Maisha, hailed from distant provinces instead of somewhere within the metropolis and needed a safe place to stay near the school. Or whose homes were destroyed in a flood or fire or some other calamity. Or who couldn’t stay with their families due to circumstances, like Nathan, the other member of our five-man band of sophomore residents. Many of us, though, were scholarship kids, like Jenneth and me.
The fact that there were so few of us compared to the rest of the school’s population was what partly led to the House’s tradition of fostering equality and close-knit ties among its residents, regardless of year or background or family circumstances. In keeping with this tradition, the House came up with its fishbowl system for deciding room assignments. The names of each student applying for residency at the House for the term were written on slips of paper and tossed into a large fishbowl, which during non-application days served as a bin for lost-and-found items at the lobby desk. Room numbers were announced, and the name of their assigned occupant would be drawn from the bowl. Juniors and seniors had the privilege of being sorted first and so got to have rooms of their own, while the sophomores, freshmen and preppies, after they were assigned rooms, had to choose a roommate to share it with.
Shortly before the school year began, one of the boys’ rooms caught fire during the night due to faulty electrical wiring, and the entire wing had to be closed down for repairs. Fortunately, this happened just before the House had opened its doors to applicants, so nobody got hurt. This meant, though, that the House’s male residents had to stay on the first floor of the girls’ wing, while the girls stayed on the second floor. As it turned out, there were eleven girls, which meant only one applicant would get a chance to have a room all to herself. Due to a huge clamor among the residents, the junior-senior privilege was scrapped for the time being to even out the playing field, and all our names were tossed into the fishbowl, regardless of our year.
Guess who the Chosen One was.
I became aware that I was smiling as I tied my blue necktie in front of the mirror on the inside of my wardrobe door, but my eyes skittered away from my reflection before I could take a good look at my face. I combed my hair, parted it on the side, and pinned it in place with a bobby pin just above the ear to keep my hair from constantly sliding into my face, all of which I did without looking at the mirror.
Instead, my gaze fell upon a cutout of a cartoon turtle with a bright, encouraging smile, which I taped to the corner of the mirror. Like all my Post-its, this turtle served as a reminder. A dark reminder of all I had done to come to St. Helene, and for whose sake I had done it. Of what it took to get me to where I was now—standing in my room in Ascension House, wearing the blue and white uniform with the golden logo on my necktie, readying myself to face another day in the jungle that was St. Helene high school.
A reminder of what I was really here for.
At least I’d finally broken the habit of reaching up to my chest to touch the lump underneath my blouse every now and then. It had been ten months since I stopped wearing the silver ring on a cord around my neck. Ten months since I stopped seeking the solace of the ring and the memories that came with it. Life had gone on, and now I was a month into my second year in high school and my third in St. Helene and in Ascension House, in the company of a warm group of friends and a new best friend and…and maybe even a new crush? Just…you know…a very small, minor, secret crush…maybe?
I blushed at the thought, then laughed a little at my bout of nonsense, glad that nobody was around to witness it. Closing my wardrobe door, I grabbed my satchel, my room key and my hand-me-down MP3 player, then slipped into my black shoes with a little sigh of pleasure. I had started the year with a new school bag, a new pair of shoes, and even a new hairstyle, which I’d gotten last summer upon Maisha’s and Honey’s advice. And in a couple of weeks, I was going home to celebrate my fifteenth birthday with my family.
In short, life was good. No, life was grand.
Of course, I thought as I headed down to the cafeteria, knocking on Maisha’s and Honey’s door as I walked past to get them to hurry up, life would be even grander if we could all manage to make it through the next month without drawing too much negative attention to us. Or at least make it in time for today’s morning assembly, just to start with. After all, we House kids had the honor of the House to protect and uphold. I laughed again to myself as the theme song from Mission Impossible began to play in my head.
But right here, right now, in the warm haven that was Ascension House, life was grand just as it was.