Days after the prince’s return and the festivities in his honor, news spread throughout the kingdom that a particularly despicable crime had been committed: Somebody had stolen the prince’s silver ring.
It was not just any ordinary ring. While it appeared to be a simple silver band, it was an heirloom that had been passed down from generation to generation in the prince’s family. It was a ring he had intended to give to his bride.
The peasant girl was in the market square when she heard the news, and her heart quailed inside her. Moments later, palace guards stormed into the market square. She was captured and dragged back to the wretched corner of the kingdom where she made her home.
Before an avid crowd of onlookers, the guards forced her to her knees while the others searched her room. They soon emerged holding aloft the silver ring that she had kept hidden among her belongings. The captain stood above her and announced in a grim voice: “You are the one who stole the prince’s ring, and here is the proof.”
The townspeople began to mutter among themselves: “She has the ring. That peasant girl stole the prince’s ring. For shame.”
“I did not steal it!” the peasant girl cried. “It was given to me by the prince himself!”
All of her protestations fell upon deaf ears. She was led away in chains to the royal palace, while the townspeople spat upon her and called for her to be thrown into the dungeon and left there to rot.
No one dared to help her. And no one cared enough to see the despair in her eyes. The peasant girl had never felt so alone.
– – – – – – – –
It started small. Just a sheet of paper taped to the middle of the big bulletin board that adorned one side of the front hall, where important school and club announcements were usually tacked. Scrawled with a black Sharpie on this sheet of paper were the words:
I wuv Christian G!
– Garbage Girl
And just to make sure everybody got the clue, the same mysterious author had drawn a rough caricature of an obese girl with black Sharpie-ed skin and a pig’s snout in the middle of her face.
We stared at the sheet of paper on the bulletin board in silence. All around us, the other students jostled to get a better look at the ghastly parody of a love-confession, then they inevitably glanced over at me and mutter to each other, muffling their laughter behind their hands. Finally, Jenneth stepped up and tore the paper off the bulletin board, crumpling it tightly in his hands.
“Wow, really? Who does childish crap like this first thing the morning?” Maisha said in a loud and seemingly bored tone.
Honey snorted. “Susmaryosep, this is all so stupid. Come on, Joy. There’s nothing to see here.” She took my arm and practically marched me away from the speculative gazes of the crowd. She must’ve felt the trembling in my arm because she shot me a concerned look and asked quietly: “Are you okay? Don’t let some brainless kid’s idea of a prank get to you.”
I nodded. “I’m okay. This isn’t anything I haven’t gone through before.”
“You think it’s…you know? That guy?” Maisha said in a low voice. Last night over dinner, Nathan and I told the others about my confrontation with Christian, ending with me delivering an open-handed slap to him, a detail Nathan rehashed over and over with horrified relish. We’d decided that if more of us knew that Christian might likely retaliate in some way, then we could more easily prevent a repeat of yesterday’s incident.
Now, I realized we’d been thinking too small.
Nathan frowned. “I don’t know. This doesn’t seem like his style but, well…”
He shrugged and left it at that, and soon the five of us parted ways. I knew what Nathan meant, though. I cast back to that day when Christian, in his one and only visit to my old school, took total control of a basketball game that soon turned into a one-on-one match between him and the boy who’d been bullying me. Five years later, I still wondered if he hadn’t somehow manipulated Federico, the other boys, and the entire audience so as to produce the result he wanted—a match so absurdly one-sided he might as well have beaten Federico up while the crowd cheered for him.
And here in St. Helene, he had not just a basketball game, but an entire school at his disposal.
“Joyous, stop thinking about it for now.” Jenneth gave my hand a comforting squeeze as we reached the doorway of our classroom. “I’m sure we can handle any—”
There was a thud right behind us, the kind of thud made by a fist connecting sharply with the door. Startled, we looked over our shoulders and found Christian looming over us, his face stony.
“Excuse me, some people would like get in,” he said with biting politeness.
We retreated to the side as he stalked to his seat in the back of the classroom, practically hurling his backpack to the floor beside his chair. Despite his black mood, he drew admiring stares from our classmates, particularly the girls, who sighed at the mere movement of his hand as he raked his fingers through his hair. Once again, the top button of his shirt was undone and his necktie hung slightly askew, and the familiar desire rose in me to go over to him and straighten his necktie, just like the way I used to do back when he was a messy little boy who got dirty within five minutes of waking up and I was a lovesick little girl who followed him around with a hanky at the ready.
I bit my lip, using the pain to drive away the useless old urges. Those days were long gone, and someone else was there to fix his clothes up for him and clean him up. Then as he bent to pull his binder out, he looked up and our eyes met across the distance. My stomach gave a funny little lurch, and I felt a traitorous warmth creep up my face at having been caught staring at him like every other girl in the room.
Well, not quite like every other girl. I was the only one who’d done the unthinkable and slapped him, after all. Was that paper on the bulletin board your doing? I wondered.
He looked away first, his gaze cutting to the window. Jenneth nudged me, and we headed over to our own seats just as our teacher appeared. As we were passing our homework forward, our teacher noticed Christian and asked him how his review of our lessons was going.
“Not very well, Sir, to be honest,” Christian drawled while I stiffened and stared down at my notebook on my desk.
“Oh? And why is that?”
“I’m having trouble following Joy’s notes. Honestly, I’m not sure she’s got a good enough grasp of the past lessons to explain them to me. I’m thinking maybe I should ask someone else.”
What?! I turned and shot Christian a look of surprised outrage. He kept his gaze fixed upon our teacher, his forbidding expression replaced with that of glowing earnestness. Our teacher frowned at me with disapproval and disappointment, then repeated his call for a volunteer to help Christian catch up.
One of the girls, who’d been eyeing Christian as if he were the only slice of strawberry cream cheesecake left in the entire buffet, quickly raised her hand. “I—that is, we can help him out, Sir,” she said, gesturing toward her other friends as well.
Christian smiled in apparent relief. “Thanks, Jasmine. It’s Jasmine, right? And Sara and Lyn?” When the other girls flushed and nodded, his smile turned endearingly embarrassed. “And I wonder, is it okay if I ask your help with the other subjects, too? Sorry, Joy,” he said to me apologetically. “I know you did your best, but it’s really not helping me.”
“Don’t worry, Christian. You’re in good hands now,” Jasmine said, and I didn’t miss the superior, pitying look she sent me.
“But I didn’t—” I caught the slight upward twist of his lips, closed my mouth with a click and faced forward again. As our teacher declared the matter closed and continued with the lecture, I gripped my pen in seething silence. For A-students, there was only one way for us to feel superior to the rest of the school—especially the gorgeous, popular aristocrats of the B section—and that was through academic achievement. This went double for scholarship kids, because unlike our classmates, we had neither a well-to-do background nor family connections to fall back on. Triple for me, since I didn’t even have looks or any sort of special talent or ability going for me.
Needless to say, competition was fierce within our section, with friendships and alliances brokered according to class standing and field of expertise. To show any sign of academic weakness was like getting a nosebleed while swimming in shark-infested waters. And he knows this, I fumed. After spending just one day in our class, Christian had already grasped the inner workings of our own mini-caste system in 2A-Rizal. This was his way of punishing me for dealing a blow to his ego by rejecting him. Of course, he could always say that he was just doing what I told him to do and find someone else, but still.
I took out one of my colorful Post-its and wrote down “Make Christian transfer to 2B-Del Pilar ASAP,” underlining ASAP twice, then stuck this onto the page of my notebook.
The rest of the day continued relatively without incident, except for a near-slip on my part during our group meeting and rehearsal for our report in Filipino. Earlier after lunch, I managed to get a copy of the training and competition schedule for the soccer team. During our group meeting, which we were holding not at the library but at one of the picnic tables at the garden-quad, I waited for an opportunity to slip the schedule into Christian’s binder.
It came when he and our other groupmates were rehearsing their part of our report-cum-skit, with Christian playing the role of the corrupt Church who would burst onto the scene and try to shut down our educated truth-teller/reporter’s spiel by accusing him of heresy, with our other groupmate as the Guardia Civil coming to arrest him. I had to admit, Christian played the role of villainous friar with electric zeal, so much that I wished I could actually see him onstage and in full costume. Watching him nearly distracted me from my mission, not to mention from the research materials and written segments the rest of us were supposed to consolidate into a printed report.
Spotting Christian’s binder beside his backpack on the opposite bench, I stood up, walked around the table, and ever so casually opened his binder and slid the schedule inside.
“Hey, we’re not done yet.” My groupmate paused in her writing and frowned up at me.
“I know. I’m just giving Christian a copy of our old script, in case he needs it,” I said, saying a quick prayer of thanks that I’d thought to hide the schedule behind the notes I’d written yesterday.
Then Christian himself came loping over. He’d untied his necktie entirely so that it hung from his neck like a thin, blue scarf, and there were grass stains and streaks of mud on the hem of his shirt, with more across his slacks. How did he even get grass stains? Did corrupt friars go rolling around on the grass or something? I thought with a flash of misplaced humor.
“So how’s the written report going?” he asked, coming to stand beside me while I fought to keep from visibly tensing up. I also fought to keep from noticing that he stood a full head taller than me. It was something I’d been too busy to notice yesterday, but apparently not too busy to notice now. Oh, and that his shoulders were really as nice and broad as Annelie and Gemma said they were. And that he smelled of grass and sweat and something woodsy—his cologne, maybe?
Oh my gosh, what is wrong with me? This is no time to notice his shoulders. Or his cologne.
“It’s more than half-way done. We just need to type it up,” my groupmate answered. “By the way, Joy put something in your binder.”
He glanced at me, and I froze in the middle of trying to sidle away. “I-it’s just a copy of the old script. You know, the one from yesterday,” I explained.
He picked up his binder and opened it to check the papers I’d inserted inside. Then he snapped the binder shut, tossed it back onto the bench, and gave me an inscrutable look. “Don’t touch my stuff,” was all he said before he returned to the others, and I allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief.
First mission: Success.
There was another sheet of paper on the front hall bulletin board the next morning, surrounded by another snickering, laughing crowd. It showed the same rough caricature of a black, obese, pig-snouted girl with arms outstretched chasing after a guy, who was fleeing from her in terror. There was garbage all around her, and stink lines radiated from all around the girl. There was an arrow pointing to the girl, and at the other end of the arrow were the words “2A Garbage Girl.”
Well, that pretty much confirmed the pig-girl’s identity.
Jenneth tore that sheet off the bulletin board again, but Honey and Maisha soon came running to show us where two other copies of that same ugly cartoon had been taped to the walls in another corridor. Both of those we tore off, too, and Honey, Maisha and Nathan promised they’d do the same to any more copies they find.
“I’m okay,” I said, in answer to Jenneth’s unasked question. “Like I said, something like this used to happen to me before.”
Jenneth looked grimly ahead. “Yeah, to me, too. I just thought we’d gotten away from all that by coming here, but I guess not.”
I was already seated when Christian came in. As he walked past me, he raised his hand and threw a crumpled wad of paper at my face. It bounced off my forehead, and landed in my lap. Every single pair of eyes in the room, including mine, swiveled toward him as he settled into his seat and stretched out his legs. When he noticed he had our undivided attention, he announced in a clear, cold voice: “I don’t care how cutesy it is, I don’t appreciate having junk put into my stuff.”
My face burned, and I quickly faced forward again, aware of the sound of muttering voices sweeping across the room. I opened up the crumpled ball; as I’d expected, it was the copy of the soccer team’s schedule. From the corner of my eye, I saw my groupmate who’d seen me slip it into Christian’s binder whisper something urgently toward her friends while staring straight me. And I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that by tomorrow the rumor would have spread that I’d snuck a love letter into Christian’s binder, only to have it literally thrown back in my face. Instead of giving him ideas about transferring to 2B-Del Pilar, all I had done was give him another chance to coldly and publicly dismiss me once again.
First mission: Unqualified failure.
The black-Sharpie papers and whatever rumors were already swirling in the air were starting to have an effect. Everywhere I went, I felt eyes following me, saw fingers pointing at me, and heard the sound of whispering voices behind me. At the cafeteria, while Jenneth and I were standing in line waiting to buy our takeaway lunches to take to the Biology 1 lab, a group of giggling girls made a beeline for the table closest to where we were standing. One of them was holding a tall paper cup full of lemonade. They started pushing one another, and the girl holding the cup somehow managed to trip and fling the contents of her cup at me, completely soaking my uniform.
“Oh my God, I’m sorry! That’s so clumsy of me,” the girl exclaimed, widening her eyes and raising a hand to her mouth in a textbook demonstration of stereotypically bad acting. Then, before either Jenneth or I could recover from our shock, she handed me her now empty cup. “Here. You’re the Garbage Girl, right?” she said with a grin, then she and her friends ran away, shrieking with laughter.
Still holding the empty cup, I stared down at my formerly white blouse, now liberally stained yellow. The other people in line shifted to give me and the puddle I was standing in a wide berth, and before we realized it, Jenneth and I had been cut out of the line.
“I’m okay,” I said again as we walked out of the cafeteria, my shoes squelching with every step. “We’ve got PE later this afternoon, right? I’ll just change early into my PE uniform. But what about lunch?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t get a chance to buy food. “I’m so sorry, Jenneth. Maybe we should go back in line—”
“Forget lunch,” Jenneth barked, his face tight and furious. “I managed to wangle an extra ensaimada this morning. We can split that. Let’s just get out of here and get you changed.”
We reported back to the Biology 1 lab, where Nathan, Honey, Maisha and the other House kids were waiting for us. They expressed their dismay, and Honey and Maisha immediately escorted me to the nearest restroom so I could change out of my sodden uniform and into our PE uniform, consisting of blue sweatpants and a white and blue collared T-shirt with the St. Helene logo. If I got called out by a teacher for wearing my PE uniform prematurely, I could just explain it away by saying I’d spilled something on my blouse. It was partially true, anyway.
When we got back to the Biology 1 lab, I discovered that all the other House kids present had contributed part of their own lunches so Jenneth and I could eat a full meal—including, of course, Jenneth’s own ensaimada, torn carefully in half.
“My friends used to do this for me back in my old school whenever they saw I didn’t have any money to buy food,” Annelie told us. This got the other scholarship kids, including the shy preppies, sharing their own stories of how they overcame periods of struggle and hardship, which I realized was their way of encouraging me.
And when lunch ended, Ate Kath and Kuya Simon, the two senior House kids present, took Jenneth and me aside. “Listen, we’ve heard what’s been going on, and we just want you to know you’ve got the House on your side,” Ate Kath told us, clasping us both on the shoulder. “You’ll always be safe with us. And if you need food or money or any kind of help, you can come to any of us. Understand?”
We both nodded, and Kuya Simon patted me on the head. “You know, every one of us House kids got treated like this at one time or another. Maybe not as bad as this but bad enough, so we know how it feels. So you can talk to us anytime if you need to, okay?”
Later in Filipino class, I endured the raised eyebrows and amused grins from my classmates—including Christian—at the sight of me in my PE uniform. We presented our report, and our little skit turned out to be a hit, just as Christian predicted. Of course, much of that was probably due to his performance as the representation of the corrupt Church. We actually received a round of applause after, and not just the polite, desultory patter given to every presentation either. It served to warm up the class to Christian even more, to the point where I could sense him beginning to fit in with the rest of 2A-Rizal.
Or rather, the rest of 2A-Rizal were slowly starting to fit themselves around Christian. I noticed that a couple more of the boys were wearing the top buttons of their shirts unbuttoned and their neckties a little looser than before. The sight filled me with alarm. He had to leave 2A-Rizal before he changed us altogether—before he changed my safe little world altogether. I tore out another Post-it and stuck it on my notebook page: Get Christian out of here! After some thought, I added more !!!!s; the situation seemed to call for it.
As for the how, well, after that soccer team schedule fiasco, it was back to the drawing board for me.
PE, our last class for the day, came as a reprieve, which sounds like an odd thing for me to say. For this period, PE class involved dividing the girls from the boys. The girls stayed in the gym and did aerobic exercises to fun dance music, while the boys did laps around the running track. Needless to say, only half of the class was happy with the situation.
“This…is so…unfair,” Jenneth wheezed up at me when I exited the gym. He was lying prone on a concrete bench with one arm flung over his head, his things half-spilling out of his bag all over the ground. I, on the other hand, felt pretty good; my early-morning wake-up jogs had also led to an improvement in my overall stamina. Laughing, I straightened up his things, then I took his hand and pulled him to his feet, where he staggered as though he’d just run a marathon. Given the fact that Jenneth was even less athletic than I was, running a few laps around the track probably was the equivalent of a marathon for him.
The other boys in our class were looking nearly as wilted, but to my surprise, they all seemed to be drifting back to the track field. Not just the boys; the girls, too, were heading toward the field, murmuring excitedly to one another. “What’s going on?” I asked Jenneth.
“Christian,” Jenneth replied resignedly. I rolled my eyes. Of course it was Christian. “The guys on the soccer team are just about to start practice,” he went on as we set off toward the running track. “When I left, they were egging him on to prove his skills hadn’t rusted in New York. I can’t believe he still has the energy to play, after he ran the fastest among us.”
Sure enough, all our classmates from 2A-Rizal were scattered around the edge of the soccer field watching the St. Helene soccer team standing around on the field. The team, of course, consisted of the hottest, most popular guys in the school, including Tony and his friends. But this time, all eyes were on the boy still clad in his white PE T-shirt and blue sweatpants, who stood on the opposite side of the field, one foot on the black and white ball.
And why not? I thought. In a field full of hot guys, he was the most compelling. Moreover, he appeared to be facing off alone against the entire team. As we continued along the running track, we were given an almost unimpeded view of him as he scooped up the ball with his foot and bounced it. Then a whistle blew, and suddenly he was a blue and white blur on the field, twisting and jumping and dancing around the other players, heading inexorably toward the goal on the other side. The ball itself seemed like a living thing, shooting off in unexpected directions, spinning, stopping, flying through the air, but always coming back to his feet until the moment he kicked it over the goalie’s shoulder and into the goal.
He raised both arms in the air and whooped in triumph while our classmates clapped and cheered for him. Only then did I realize that I’d stopped walking completely and was instead just standing there watching him while Jenneth waited impatiently several feet ahead of me. Christian had been…entrancing to watch. He moved like a force of nature, a twister given a graceful human form. I released the breath I wasn’t even aware I’d been holding, and curled the hand I’d been pressing against my racing heart into a fist.
He was beautiful. And dangerous.
He was out of my league, and out of my life.
I shook my head to clear the sparkling cobwebs from my mind. Then I turned aside and started toward Jenneth. The alarmed look on his face and the shouting startled me, and I glanced over my shoulder to find a black and white ball rapidly filling my world.
Something slammed into me, knocking me off my feet. Dazed, I looked up into a familiar, white-clad back, who kicked the ball back into the field and yelled at the others: “Don’t you boneheads know how to aim?”
Then Christian turned and offered a hand to me. I blinked up at him, my thoughts as sluggish as my pulse definitely was not, and against my better judgment, I placed my hand in his and let him pull me up. The contact was a mistake, I realized too late. His hand encased mine in warmth that felt both familiar and unfamiliar, and when I looked up into his face, I found him gazing at me with the strangest expression. As if he couldn’t quite believe I’d actually taken his hand.
The moment hung suspended in the air.
“Are you okay?” he asked in a low voice.
I nodded. “Thanks. That was close.”
His fingers tightened around mine, as if unwilling to let go. He swallowed as a faint tinge of red appeared on his cheeks, and opened his mouth—
“Joy! We have to go! You’ve got a date with Nathan in twenty minutes, remember?”
Jenneth’s voice shattered the moment. Christian stiffened as the strange warmth in his gaze froze over, and he dropped my hand as if it had turned into a snake. Then without another word, he turned and headed back to the field.
I walked toward Jenneth, and together we went back to the House. Nathan was already in the lobby waiting for me, and I had to shower in a hurry and change into a casual outfit before our eight o’clock House curfew kicked in. He took me to Bunny Vanilla, as he promised, where we ate nothing but chocolate cupcakes and café lattes for dinner, and we laughed and talked about inconsequential things. We made no mention at all of cruel caricatures on sheets of paper, unfounded rumors, and the fact that my uniform was soaking in my bucket in the laundry room to get the lemonade stains out.
We talked about Christian, and I told him about his recent demonstration of his soccer skills, which were clearly not rusted at all. Then we talked about how his family had been asking about his progress in school, and how he hoped that with me tutoring him in Math, someday he’d be able to hear a hint of warmth in the voices over the phone.
In short, my date with Nathan was as sweet and easy and comfortable as I thought it would be. I drew that sweetness and comfort around me like a blanket, keeping away all thoughts of bullying and cruelty and pointless, confusing feelings. And if my hand continued to tingle with the memory of Christian’s touch—well, that was just another thing I kept to myself.