Part 3: The Bridal Veil, Chapter 3

READ PART 3: THE BRIDAL VEIL, CHAPTER 2

The peasant girl’s journey to the prince’s kingdom was long and difficult, but she found help along the way. She also took with her a silver ring, which she wore on a cord around her neck. It was a memento from the prince, and it came with a promise that he would make her his princess someday.

 She finally reached her destination, but the prince still had not returned. She decided to make her home in the kingdom, joining the rest of its subjects in waiting for their prince.

 She soon found that while the kingdom appeared perfect, dark threads ran beneath its surface, ensnaring those who did not belong to the ranks of the wealthy and aristocratic. She realized that the prince, even if he did return, would not even remember her now. She would not be his princess. She would, instead, remain a nameless, faceless peasant girl from a distant land, as unnoticeable and unnoticed as a shadow in the crowd.

 So she chose to let the prince go. And in time, she began to forget.

– – – – – – – –

“Uh, hi, Joy,” Nathan began.

And despite the fact that he appeared to be even more nervous than I felt, I found myself giggling. “Hi, Nathan. I think we’ve already covered that earlier,” I said, our steps falling in sync as we turned left on Sampaguita Street. There, occupying nearly the entire block on the other side of the street, was the four-storey high, white and blue-ribbed, gothic cathedral-esque high school building, complete with rows of tall, arched windows and even a flying buttress here and there. The inside of the building was far more staid and normal-looking, but from the outside, the overall impression was that of an impending reenactment of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the high school edition. Other students streamed past, some walking alone or in pairs or groups, others arriving by car, all headed toward the ornate, double doors of the entrance.

He chuckled ruefully as well. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. That was dumb. I was just—well, there’s something I wanted to ask you. Are you, uh, doing anything later after—”

“Stop.”

“Huh?”

I grabbed his arm to forcibly stop him and turn him to face me, forcing the students who were walking behind to move around us, shooting us impatient glances along the way. All of my attention, however, was focused on the fuzzy, yellow and black strip I’d seen on his collar, sitting perilously close to the skin of his neck. “Don’t move, okay? There’s a caterpillar right on top of your collar. It must’ve dropped from one of the trees. No, don’t touch it!” I exclaimed, catching his hand when he instinctively raised it to bat the creature away. “These ones sting like crazy. I’ve been hit by one of these before.”

“Take it off,” he wheezed, his eyes bulging with panic, beads of sweat popping on his brow. “Take it off, take it off.”

“Shhh, it’s okay, it’s not moving. Just calm down,” I said soothingly. Reaching into my bag, I pulled out my hanky and a sheet of note paper, then covered his neck with the hanky with one hand to keep the caterpillar’s hairs from making contact with his skin, and with my other hand gently scraped the caterpillar off with the note paper. Stepping back, I placed the caterpillar on some bushes, then turned to face him. “There. No harm done,” I announced cheerfully.

He didn’t smile back, even when a couple of guys yelled “no flirting allowed” at us as they walked past. “Thanks,” he said shakily as he scratched at his neck. “I really hate those things.”

Frowning, I grabbed his hand again to stop his scratching long enough to let me examine his neck. “I don’t see anything. Is it really itchy? I thought I’d gotten it off before it touched you.”

“I—I don’t know. My neck feels all prickly, but maybe it’s all in my mind.” He resumed clawing at his neck at a more frenzied pace.

“Then you better get yourself to the clinic and have some cream put on that. Go on, go.” I pushed at him to get him moving toward the entrance again.

“But what about assembly?” he asked, glancing back at me.

“I think your lateness can be excused. Just get a slip from the clinic.”

“But I haven’t asked you my question yet.”

My stomach did a little flip. I’d completely forgotten about his question. Before I could collect my wits, he spun around and fixed me an intent look, one hand still working at his neck, which had turned an angry red. “I want to ask you: W-will you, uh—”

I swallowed. “Yes?”

Drawing in a breath, he closed his eyes and blurted: “Will you tutor me in Math? I need help with linear inequalities.”

There was a beat of silence as my brain hastily switched gears. “Sure, of course,” I replied automatically while the rest of me tried to figure out if I felt more relieved than disappointed or if it was the other way around. “Um, but you know, you’re rooming with Jenneth. I’m pretty sure he can help with any Math-related problem you have,” I pointed out.

He shrugged sheepishly. “Actually, he told me to ask you. He said his forte is science and seduction, while yours is math and masochism.”

I rolled my eyes, picturing a grinning Jenneth. “At least one of those is a big, fat lie,” I muttered, then jumped when the chiming of the school bell pierced the air, signaling the start of assembly. “Uh oh. Look, let’s meet at the library after class, okay? I’ll help you with whatever problem you’re having trouble with. Now go to the clinic already.”

I managed to sneak to the back of our class line moments before the invocation began. As I lowered my head, I heard a “psst” from somewhere in front. I dared a peek, and found Jenneth giving me a questioning sideways look. I pursed my lips and sent him a mock-glare, then somebody cleared their throat and we both bowed our heads again until the end of the prayer.

I let my gaze wander during the principal’s weekly pep talk and the singing of the national anthem and St. Helene school hymn, taking in the sight of students standing like orderly platoons of soldiers clad in blue and white, albeit soldiers armed with backpacks and binders instead of guns and grenades. For a scared, disoriented preppie scholarship kid who had no one to cling to except another scared, disoriented preppie scholarship kid, understanding the peculiarities of St. Helene Academy’s social structure had been crucial to survival, and it had taken me no time at all to learn that life in St. Helene was all about rank, status, and the proper order of things. There were rules to be followed, hierarchies to be respected, a caste system to be adhered to, and invisible lines you crossed at your peril.

The formation of the platoons during assemblies represented the most obvious divisions among the students. The rows were arranged by year level, with the preppies at the front, and the seniors at the back. The columns, though, were ranged according to class rank percentile, with the A sections of each year on one side of the covered courtyard where the assemblies were held, the E sections on the opposite side, and the B, C, and D sections in the middle. The A sections were the advanced classes, with lessons proceeding at a swifter pace, more readings and requirements to deal with, priority status for the use of the labs and facilities, and a language program that started during the freshman year instead of the junior year like the other levels. The joke was that the A stood for “always stressed,” a testament to the more stringent demands on the students. Jenneth and I had been ranked in the A sections ever since prep year. All the scholarship kids were; any lower led to you being stripped of your scholarship, which was tantamount to expulsion. We were scholarship kids for a reason, after all.

On the opposite end were the E sections, who were given the lowest priority in the use of facilities, resources and basically everything else, and who were always picked to be the clean-up crew after school events since most figured they had the time, on account of not being allowed to join any club or sports team or extra-curricular activity. They tended to be the butt of the teachers’ jokes, the anti-example held up before other classes. Some said the E stood for “endless remedials.” I’d heard worse—that the “E” stood for “eejits.”

Nathan was in the E section.

Sandwiched between the two extremes of the class rank bell curve were the B, C and D sections—the normal students, the ones who were not automatically judged as either automatons living joyless, barren lives or meatheads who were floored by the idea of not breathing through their mouths. Maisha was in the D section while Honey was in C, and while that was all well and good, what you really wanted, if your aim was to rise through the ranks of St. Helene society, was to get yourself into the B section, where the most popular kids tended to congregate, having perfected the ability to balance academics and a dynamic social life.

Which brings me to the caste system of St. Helene. Back in good old Don Mateo, we were pigeonholed according to looks and physical abilities, because the Lord knew there wasn’t much else to distinguish us by. But St. Helene stacked several more layers to that. We were judged and labeled according to economic background; to family business and connections; to our degree of religious piety; to what sort of talents we had; to whether we were continuing from St. Helene Elementary School or lateral entrants, and if we were the latter, which school we’d come from; to clubs or teams we belonged to; to who among the teachers liked or disliked us; to our ability to amuse and entertain; to how attractive we were to the opposite sex; to what model our cellphones and computers were. All of these created a complex, every-shifting meshwork of hierarchies, a kind of Snakes and Ladders game of popularity and position played with loaded dice. And the winners of the game, the ones standing at the very top of this pyramid, were a group of rich, super-attractive, socially savvy princes and princesses—the Tonys and Nikkis of St. Helene.

This situation led to some strange and often absurd rules. For instance, boys aiming to be popular should make it their goal to be part of a sports team—the soccer team, preferably, as this seemed to be the equivalent of an old boys’ club, as far as I could tell. But if you didn’t make the cut, there were the basketball team, the swim team, the martial arts teams, the tennis club, the volleyball team, and, if you were really desperate, the track and field and badminton teams to choose from. But not, for the love of God, the chess or Scrabble teams. Those teams were social cyanide.

For girls seeking to be upwardly mobile, being a serious athlete in a sports team was only good as a back-up plan. What you really wanted was to be seen, preferably on a stage of some kind. The cheerleading squad, ideally, or the streetdance club, the theater club for the would-be thespians, the St. Helene Church Choir for the musically and religiously inclined, the folkdance club if you really had to, and a rock band or two for those who wanted to stick it to the man and be seen as cool and edgy. Platforms from which you could showcase your attributes did not include academic competitions. Classrooms were where you did academic stuff; take it beyond that, you were just a dull, spiritless nerd.

There were other rules: In the auditorium, the high-ranking students sat in the best seats at the back rows, while the lower ranked ones sat in front. At the sports field, the high-ranking students took the mid-level bleachers, while the low-ranking students sat at the top and provided shade, or lined the bottom bleachers and formed a human shield against stray balls. When walking down the corridors or passing through doorways, high-ranking students had right of way and everyone else was in the way. Outside the classrooms, a low-ranking student approaching a high-ranking student was a shocking breach of etiquette, but not if they knew each other or if the high-ranking student graciously allowed the contact.

And still more rules: If the Music and PE teachers liked you, you were headed firmly in the right direction. If the English, Science and Math teachers liked you, you were doing okay but treading close to the path of spiritless nerdhood. If the Practical Arts and Home Economics teachers liked you, you were doomed. Being seen praying at the chapel once a week—usually during the Friday afternoon Mass—was acceptable. Any more than that and you were either a member of the choir or a religious fanatic; any less, and you were a Satanist. And as for relationships, they were technically allowed, but only because there was nothing written down that said they weren’t. However, public displays of affection were forbidden. This only meant, though, that liaisons were conducted guerrilla-style—in sudden strikes and quick engagements inside empty classrooms, underneath stairwells, behind the trees in Annie’s Park, and sometimes, if the occasional rumor was to be believed, inside the janitors’ broom closets.

Not that I’d know anything about that personally. The only romance I had time for was in my paperback novels, and up until this moment, I hadn’t really seen this as a problem.

“So what happened?” Jenneth sidled up to me as the assembly came to an end and we turned to file out of the covered courtyard.

I gave him a deadpan look. “You should know. You put him up to it.”

“I miiiight have planted the seed of an idea, yeah,” he replied, assuming an angelic expression. “But never mind that. Did he ask you out or what?”

I sighed. “Yes. To tutor him in math. He’s afraid you’d seduce him if he asked you.”

“No way. He’s not my type,” he said offhandedly, then seemed to catch himself. “Wait, he asked you to tutor him? Just that? Nothing else?”

“Nothing. We’re meeting up at the library later.”

Unsa ba,” he muttered, using a phrase we often heard Honey use when she was exasperated. Then he brightened. “No, it’s okay, it’s still cool. He was so antsy when we talked last night, so I told him to ask you to tutor him and take it from there. I just thought I’d give you two a little—”

“Hey.”

We were about to climb the stairs to the second floor where our first class was when a sharp voice called out from behind us, interrupting our conversation. I tensed but didn’t stop moving, hoping if I did so, the speaker would go away.

“Hey, Ugly, I’m talking to you.”

“Ignore her,” Jenneth said through clenched teeth. “Let’s just go.”

“I said hey!”

Groaning, I stopped and turned to face my long-time arch-nemesis. “I have a name, Nikki. It’s pretty short, only one syllable. Wrap your empty little head around it already.”

Nikki flipped her artfully arranged waves of hair over her shoulder and snickered. “It’s not my fault you answer to ‘Ugly,’” she said innocently, making the other girls who were part of her coterie laugh.

I was childishly glad that I was standing on the steps while she was on the floor below me, as it gave me an elevated position from which I could skewer her with a glare. “Okay, you got my attention. What do you want?” I snapped, not even attempting to sound polite. I never bothered to, anyway, not with Nikki, and not since last year. While she outranked me by a mile in terms of wealth, beauty and social status, I outranked her in terms of academic achievement, human decency and general lack of inbred malice. As far as I was concerned, that made us equals.

She touched the tip of her necktie against her lip, and gave me a small, contemptuous smile. “I just want to give you a word of warning, since we’ve got history and all,” she purred. “Don’t lose your head now, you hear? He won’t be the way he used to be with you. It’d be soooo mortifying if you turned into a blubbering mess because you’re too stupid to know this, so much that you’d probably just die.”

Her gang of minions laughed again while I gave her a flat stare. “I have no idea what you’re blathering about.”

“Oh right, you wouldn’t, would you? So sorry,” she said with fake lightness. “Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say. See you around, Cow. I mean, Joy.”

With that, she gave a little finger-wave and walked away with her minions, leaving both Jenneth and me seething on the steps. “Jenneth, I need to go to confession,” I said in a tight voice. “I just committed a hundred bloody murders in my mind right now.”

“Sure, as long as I go next,” Jenneth responded tersely.

We went to class, with both of us deciding that whatever twaddle Nikki had been spouting was not worth taking seriously. Nikki herself was not worth taking seriously, or so I reminded myself as I sat at my desk and tried to pay attention to the lecture, resenting Nikki even more for wrecking my concentration. I didn’t like her back when she was little Princess Spoiled Brat, and the years had not improved her one bit, unless you considered an upgrade from brat to bitch an improvement.

I drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly in an attempt to reign in my temper. Encounters with Nikki always brought out the worst in me, but fortunately we seldom interacted with each other aside from the occasional “don’t block the way, Ugly” and “this is our room/table/space, move it”, with the both of us generally content to pretend the other didn’t exist. This was easy enough to do for the most part; to say we ran in different circles would be putting it mildly. But whenever we did have an exchange that lasted for more than five seconds, they tended to range from the seriously unpleasant to the painfully traumatic…

And I remembered the way she watched my face when she handed me that photograph, the way she laughed as the last remaining pieces of my heart broke, as the magic that had sustained me through years of bullying and mockery and struggle was revealed as the lie it really was, leaving me shattered, lost, betrayed, betrayed, betrayed…

“…from 1400 to 1800, there was the massive extension of networks of communication and exchange across the world, linking people and societies in a development called the Great Global Convergence…”

With an annoyed huff, I shook off the last of my Nikki-inspired doldrums, and settled instead for wondering if Nathan was okay, and if Jenneth was right about him just using the tutoring thing as a way of working up his nerve to ask me out. I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Nathan and me being together—anxious, certainly, and self-conscious, curious and excited and eager to find out. But at the same time, I also felt strangely detached, as if a part of me was standing off to one side, watching and whispering constantly, Why?

By the time lunch period rolled around, I’d decided I could better gauge my feelings for Nathan by observing how I felt around him. This meant spending more time with him, which didn’t sound bad at all. Maybe Jenneth was right. Maybe the tutoring thing was a good idea. At the very least, I could help Nathan bring his grades up in math, and at the same time, maybe we could figure out if we were right for each other, taking our time to get to know each other and pacing things slowly.

It wasn’t only during morning assemblies where you got to see how St. Helene’s caste system played out. To figure out where you were in the social rankings, all you had to do was look at where you ate lunch during lunch period. The high-ranking students had first pick of the center tables inside the cafeteria or the picnic tables in the garden quadrangle. More often than not, though, they went out to have lunch at one of the cafés and restaurants surrounding the campus. The lower-ranked students jockeyed for position at the fringes of the cafeteria or sat on the grass underneath the trees in the garden. The others adjourned to their respective club offices. And bottom-dwellers like us ate inside classrooms. After our less-than-enjoyable first encounter with Tony and his ilk at the cafeteria, Jenneth and I joined the scholarship kids from the other years in eating lunch at the Biology 1 lab, unfazed by the bottles of preserved fetuses and dead invertebrates lining the shelf. Sometimes the other House kids joined us, including Maisha, Honey and the upperclassmen, but after his buddies dropped him last year following the news of his fall from grace with his family, Nathan became a permanent fixture in the Biology 1 lunch crowd.

Except, apparently, today, I thought in puzzlement as I eyed the empty seat across me. I’d finished the pasta I’d ordered to go at the cafeteria and was folding up the box to throw away when Nathan came in, holding a sad-looking chicken sandwich in a plastic baggie.

“Hey, Nate, what took you so long? We’re almost done,” Jenneth called out.

I smiled in welcome as he sank down into his chair, then my smile faded when I saw the strange look on his face. “What’s wrong? Are you feeling okay?”

Nathan swiveled his head toward me and gave me a sickly smile. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“Is your neck still bothering you? Did the trip to the clinic help at all?”

“Yeah, it—it did. It feels better now. My neck, I mean.” He opened the baggie and took a bite of his sandwich, staring off into space as he chewed mechanically. He took another bite, then set the sandwich down on the table and continued to stare at nothing in particular.

I watched him worriedly, wondering if something had happened to him. Did he have trouble in his classes again? I knew he’d gotten better with regard to schoolwork ever since he and Jenneth started rooming together, but he still couldn’t raise his grades high enough to climb out of the E-section. His family was wealthy and well-connected, and he used to be part of our class’ group of aristocrats—granted, it was the same way a wad of gum on the bottom of a shoe was part of a person’s outfit for the day, but still. This should’ve placed him much higher in St. Helene’s social pyramid, but an E-student was still just an E-student. His family thought so, and the rest of St. Helene agreed.

Besides that, he was a House kid now. As with every other House kid in history, this pretty much guaranteed that he would never fit in with the rest of polite St. Helene society.

The school bell chimed, signaling the end of lunch period, and I couldn’t help but notice that Nathan had simply rewrapped his uneaten sandwich and stuffed it in his pocket, then walked out of the room without saying a word to any of us. Later after our last class ended, I waved goodbye to Jenneth, who was headed to a meeting of the Science Club, and made my way to the library. There was no sign of Nathan yet, so I picked an empty table near one of the tall, arching windows and settled down to get some work done.

Nathan arrived twenty minutes later. “Sorry. I had to redo my essay on human dignity, and Ms. Javier wouldn’t let me leave until I finished it. Have you been waiting long?” he whispered as he dropped into the chair in front of me.

I smiled and shook my head. He was looking better now than he did during lunch time, and if he was still looking a little troubled, it was probably because of having to redo his essay. “It’s okay. I had some research to do anyway,” I said, tapping the small stack of books beside me with my pen. “So what did you want help with?”

He took out our math workbook and opened it to the pages he was having trouble with, and for the next forty minutes or so, I coached him on several problems on linear equations. The rain that had been threatening to fall since this morning was coming down in sheets by the time we left the library, turning the usually magnificent view of the sunset from the high school building to a dismal mass of dark clouds. I pulled my folding umbrella out and opened it. He took it from me with a nervous little smile, and we started back toward the House, walking closely side by side to keep as much of ourselves sheltered underneath my tiny umbrella.

It was a cozy, romantic scene, even if the rain plastered my hair even more limply against my head. I absorbed the warmth radiating from Nathan and turned inward, feeling for the beating of my heart—was it faster than usual? it was, it was—and the airy sensation inside my stomach—butterflies? Or just a hankering for dinner? Butterflies, I decided. But the tamer sort of butterflies, not the sort that turned my brain into confetti and loosened my grip on reality. Being with Nathan like this felt sweet and easy, comfortable and comforting, and I marveled at how long it had taken me to appreciate it. To appreciate him.

It’s not roses and candlelight. It’s not long talks on a boat ride and or star-gazing on a water tower. It’s not basketball duels fought in my name, or flickering rings of light around a birthday feast, or lingering kisses until we both fall asleep. It’s not—

It’s not an illusion, I snarled at the thought, anger rising up at how after almost a year, I was still being haunted by my traitorous memories of the past. This is real. Nathan is real. Get out of my head, Christian. Go away!

You’re mine, Joy. You promised me, remember? And I already know that you won’t ever forget about me, because I made sure of it.

I flinched as though Christian was right in front of me, speaking the words out loud. Sensing my movement, Nathan glanced at me. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” I answered, beating back the phantom Christian into the deep, dark corner of my mind where he deserved to molder. “There was a puddle back there.”

He nodded, accepting my answer. “Hey, Joy.”

“Yes?” I looked at him, belatedly noticing how distracted he seemed. Apparently, I’m the only one feeling the cozy, romantic atmosphere here, I thought wryly.

“Listen, I—I was wondering. If I asked you out, w-would you say yes?”

I stopped, forcing him to stop as well so as not to leave me standing in the pouring rain. A wave of heat flooded my face as I stared up at him. He stared back, his face looking uncharacteristically set and determined, almost grim even.

“A-are you asking me out?” I asked in a tiny voice. I’d daydreamed about this situation plenty of times, but now that it was actually happening, I found myself holding my breath and waiting for the catch, waiting for the punchline of the joke.

“I—well, maybe…” He swallowed, then seemed to gather himself. “Yes. Yes, I am. Will you go out with me, Joy? I know you can’t do weekends, so I was thinking we could go to Bunny Vanilla Friday afternoon after class or something,” he said, naming a bakery shop cum café near our school that specialized in unbearably cute pastries and drinks.

Oh my gosh. “I—I have tutoring sessions at the Chaplain’s office on Friday.” His face fell, and I quickly added, “But I can ask Simone to fill in for me and do a double-shift next week.”

Hope lit up his eyes. “Is that a yes then?”

Oh my gosh. “Yes.” I bit my lips, but couldn’t stop the smile from breaking free. He smiled back, then our smiles grew into wide grins and breathless laughter. Then before I realized what I was doing, I found myself asking: “Why me?”

Because you’re Joy. Because you’re the most important friend in the world to me. And because you’re my bride.

 Shut up, Christian.

Still grinning, Nathan gestured with the umbrella and we started walking again. “Why? I guess it’s because you’re the nicest, sweetest girl I’ve ever met. And you’re smart and funny to boot. And—”

I sighed dreamily. “And?”

“And I—I’ve liked you since prep year,” he mumbled, going so red even his ears were glowing. Then he gave me a sidelong look as he turned even redder. “Plus, you’ve got the prettiest eyes. And you’re beautiful when you smile, Joy.”

You’ve got the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.

I was shaking my head even before he’d finished talking, dismissing both Nathan’s and phantom Christian’s words. “It’s okay, you don’t have to go that far. Thanks. I don’t even know why I asked you that,” I said with a laugh as we climbed up the House’s front steps and entered the lobby, with Nathan hanging my dripping umbrella on the rack beside the door.

We went off to our separate rooms to get changed out of our damp uniforms, pausing to say hi to both Mang Caloy and Ate Rina, the security guard on day duty at the lobby. A few minutes later, Honey practically broke down my door to interrogate me about what happened between Nathan and me, with Maisha arriving after completing her salat. Then later, we met up with Jenneth and Nathan and the other House kids at the cafeteria for dinner, during which Nathan and I endured a ridiculous amount of teasing comments and sly eyebrow-waggling.

Later still, I went to the House’s meeting room, a large reception room beside the lobby, opposite the cafeteria to use the phone there. All the House kids were either cramming in the study room or winding down in front of the TV in the rec room, so nobody else was around in the meeting room. I dialed a number and waited.

But not for long. “Hello?” Faith answered.

“Wow, that was fast,” I commented jokingly. “Waiting for someone in particular to call?”

Ate Joy!”

Wincing, I held the receiver away from my ear while my younger sister shrieked her greetings. Then Nanay took the phone from her, followed by Tatay, and I gave both of them an update on my day. The phone was a relatively new addition to our house; we’d gotten it two years ago with the money Nanay got from Lola Delia, and we all made use of it whenever we could. Especially Faith who, Ate Grace informed me recently, apparently had multiple suitors to manage.

Finally, Ate Grace took the phone. “So I heard from Nanay that you’re coming home Saturday morning instead of Friday night. What’s this about, hmm?” she asked without preamble.

My gosh, the instincts my older sister has, I thought, amused. “Well, if you really want to know, I’ve got a date,” I told her, then launched into a brief recounting of Nathan’s invitation.

There were several beats of silence. “Seriously?”

“Yes! I know! Somebody actually asked me out, Ate. I can’t believe it either, but it seems it actually happened.”

I held the receiver away again while Ate Grace whooped in triumph. “Holy shit—sorry, ‘Nay—that’s great!” she crowed while in the background I could hear Faith screeching “she’s got a date, Ate Joy’s got a date” so loudly the entire neighborhood was going to want to know all about it the next time I visited home.

I raised an eyebrow, even though she couldn’t see it. “Gosh, you guys make it sound like I just won the Nobel prize or something. Is it really that unbelievable?”

“With you? Yes,” Ate Grace said bluntly. “We were wondering how long you were going to mope about like an idiot. There’re a million guys out there, and it’s about damn time you woke up to that fact.”

“Okay, I get it, I’ve finally escaped the convent. Sheesh.” I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, I’ll see you on Saturday, okay? Bye.”

“Just don’t let him get too frisky on a first—”

“Bye, Ate.”

I put the phone down and sat in the empty room, feeling a mixture of satisfaction and anticipation steal over me. Ate Grace was right. This date with Nathan was the last task I had to complete, the last barrier to letting go of the past. If I did this right, I could finally be free. I could finally forget.

“Forward,” I murmured, repeating a lesson Nanay had taught me years ago. “Can’t go back to the past. Can’t stay where I am. I go forward.”

READ PART 3: THE BRIDAL VEIL, CHAPTER 4

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