The guards did not throw the peasant girl into the dungeon as she had expected. Instead, the captain led her through a small doorway, up some narrow stairs, and through a long, winding corridor. Finally, they came to a door, which opened into an exquisitely furnished chamber.
And seated in front of the fire was the prince himself. “Come closer,” he commanded.
Still bound in chains, the peasant girl approached the prince. She searched his handsome face for any sign of recognition but saw none.
“You are the girl with my silver ring,” he said.
“Yes, Your Highness. But I did not steal it.”
“Yet it was found among your belongings, this ring intended for my bride.”
She met his cold, cold gaze. “You gave it to me, Your Highness. When you came to my land many years ago. Have you forgotten? Do you not remember me at all?”
Her broken plea failed to move him. “I had my men search for my ring, knowing that they would find you. Do you know why?”
She lowered her eyes again. “No, Your Highness.”
“I am cursed,” the prince said sternly. “And the one who has brought this curse upon me is you.”
– – – – – – – –
After spending a refreshing weekend at home, I believed I was ready to face whatever awaited me when I returned to school the next week. That was until I saw the new edition of the black-Sharpie papers. Our mysterious author had been a bit more imaginative this time. The day’s black-Sharpie message wasn’t tacked onto the bulletin board. Instead, it was taped to the rim of a garbage bin in the front hall, in full view of everyone passing through to get to the covered courtyard for morning assembly. It said:
For Garbage-Girl’s Love Confessions
Ah. I knew it.
I tore the paper off, crumpled it up and tossed it into the bin, horribly aware of the muffled laughter and murmured comments of “She did what? To him? Oh God, really?” drifting past me. “Who is doing all this is what I’d like to know,” Maisha muttered, shooting death-glares at anyone who even dared to glance in our direction.
“Someone with not enough brains and too much time on their hands, obviously,” Honey declared.
“Well, at least it’s just one piece of paper this time,” Nathan said with forced brightness.
Jenneth took my hand and pulled me to his side, and together we walked to our section’s line in the morning assembly formation. It brought me back to the days when we were scared preppies with no one to cling to, figuratively and literally, except each other. “I’m okay,” I said in answer to his quiet question. “Nathan’s right. This isn’t as bad as last week. Maybe they’re finally getting tired of this idiocy, whoever they are.”
We broke apart, with him heading somewhere to the front of the boys’ line and me at the back of the girls’ line. Gripping the strap of my bag, I tried to dodge and sidestep as best as I could from my spot, but that didn’t stop people from bumping into me and shouldering me to and fro on the way to their own lines, sometimes with an occasional insincere “oh, excuse me” and sometimes with not a word at all.
The bumping and shoving abruptly stopped, and I finally had a chance to straighten my things and push my hair back from my face. Then I discovered why people were suddenly keeping a respectful distance: Christian had taken his position in the back of the boys’ line, which just so happened to put him right beside me. This time, people walked around us, smiling and tossing him friendly greetings, and he reciprocated with a bright, infectious grin. I lowered my head and kept still, hiding in the shade cast by his brilliance so nobody would notice my trembling.
I’m okay, I chanted to myself, biting my lip hard. I’m okay.
“So how was your date?”
It took a while for me to realize that the casual-sounding question was meant for me. I looked up and found Christian giving me a cool, sideways look. I opened my mouth, but the feedback from a microphone cut through the air before I could reply, signaling the start of morning assembly. We stood quietly through the invocation, then the singing of the national anthem. Weirdly enough, I noticed that Christian stopped singing not even half-way through the song and just seemed to stand there listening to the anthem, looking absorbed and not a little bemused. Then the principal came to the stage and began his weekly inspirational speech, which served as his audience’s cue to collectively zone out.
“Do you still sing?” Christian said in a voice barely audible over the principal’s sermon.
I glanced at him in surprise. “Do I what?” I whispered back.
“Sing. Because I remember you—” He paused, then frowned and shook his head. “Anyway, you sing, right? Like, perform solos or with a choir or something?”
I shook my head.
“Well, what about church songs?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I know more than just church songs now, you know.”
“Oh yeah? I can’t believe how much you’ve changed.” He smiled back, and to my astonishment, he actually seemed teasing. “But you really don’t sing? Not even pop songs on karaoke?”
“No, I don’t. Now shhh. Our homeroom teacher’s looking this way.” I looked straight ahead and assumed an expression of intense interest when I noticed our homeroom adviser, who was sitting onstage behind our principal, casting quelling looks our way.
He subsided into silence for about a minute or two. Then: “Well?”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“How was your date with Nathan?”
I shot him a disbelieving look. He arched an eyebrow in return, his gently teasing manner now a quickly fading memory. “It was fun,” I responded reluctantly.
He snorted and stuck his hands in his pockets. “Fun, huh? So where’d he take you?”
“Shhh!” I shushed him again when even a few of our classmates began shooting us looks.
“Where’d he take you?”
“None of your business,” I muttered, heat rising in my face. “Why do you care, anyway?”
“Where did you two go?”
I threw him an exasperated look, which only caused his jaw to jut out obstinately. “We went to Bunny Vanilla and ate cupcakes. There. Now stop asking me questions.”
“And then what?”
“And then nothing. We went home.”
“That’s it? That’s all Nathan did for you?” he jeered. “You should’ve held out for more, Joy. I’m actually disappointed in you.”
It’s not roses and candlelight, the phantom-Christian in my head taunted me again. It’s not long talks on a boat ride or star-gazing on a water tower. It’s not basketball duels fought in your name, or flickering rings of light around a birthday feast, or lingering kisses until we both fall asleep.
Have you really forgotten, Christian? Or is it that you hate the memories as much as you seem to hate me?
My fists clenched as I glared up at the real Christian sneering down at me. “You are being totally unfair,” I retorted, my temper feeding on the hurt from his barb. “Nathan is nice and sweet, and I like him. Believe it or not, I don’t need anything more.”
“Nice and sweet,” Christian echoed derisively. “Are you talking about a guy or one of those cupcakes he fed you?”
“I’m not talking about you, that’s for sure! Why are you being so nasty anyway?”
The principal cleared his throat into the microphone and glowered at the two of us from behind the podium. Belatedly, I realized our voices had grown noticeably louder, enough to draw the attention of every single person within the vicinity. I looked past our principal and into the furious face of our homeroom teacher, and blanched. We were in for it now.
Thanks to Christian’s pestering, the two of us were called aside by our homeroom teacher the instant morning assembly ended. We received the same punishment: detention every day starting today, for the next seven days, during which we were to write an essay on each of the seven Christian values espoused by St. Helene Academy. Then later during homeroom, the entire class was forced to listen to a tedious lecture on proper comportment during morning assembly. To say that this did not win me any points with my classmates is putting it mildly; the whole day, I had to endure resentful looks and snide remarks about my attempts to harass Christian in the middle of assembly.
The fact that everyone saw Christian as the victim in this debacle instead of rightfully blaming him did not escape me. Later, I fell into step with him as we headed to our next class just so I could hiss at him: “I hope you’re happy. This is all your fault.”
Instead of showing even the slightest trace of remorse, Christian merely gave me the dimpled smile of distilled innocence. “Looks like you’ll be canceling all your dates for the next seven days. My sympathies,” he tossed offhandedly.
I halted in the middle of the corridor and stared after him. There had been something in his eyes—a glint of satisfaction, a flash of triumph—that filled me with bewilderment and doubt. Did you do this on purpose? Could it be possible that you meant for this to happen?
What sort of game are you playing, Christian Dominic Garcia?
After that, things went from bad to worse. Nathan turned out to be wrong, for one thing. The garbage bin in the front hall wasn’t the only one with a taped piece of paper labeling it “For Garbage-Girl’s Love Confessions”; several other garbage bins scattered around the school bore the label. This, together with the commotion we caused during morning assembly, caused a spike in the number of speculative and downright hostile looks thrown my way as I walked through the hallways, and several times I caught the words “Garbage Girl” being muttered behind me.
“I’m okay,” I told Jenneth again, but when we approached the doorway to the cafeteria, I realized I wasn’t okay. Dread rose in me at the prospect of a repeat of the lemonade-spilling incident, and despite my best intentions, my feet began to drag.
Noticing my trepidation, Jenneth stopped and planted his hands on his hips. “‘Okay,’ my beautiful, fragrant butt. Look, how about you go on ahead to the lab, Joyous? I’ll go buy our food for us.”
To my shame, I proved my own cowardice by grasping at his suggestion like a drowning man. “Really? You—you don’t mind?”
“Nah. Better than you spending the night washing out your uniform again. Just give me your money.”
I hugged Jenneth in gratitude, promising “this is just for today.” Then he started toward the cafeteria, and I made my way alone to the Biology 1 lab. This turned out to be a mistake. Halfway there, I came upon a rowdy bunch of boys whom I recognized as belonging to 2C-Luna, Honey’s class. They were walking toward me from the opposite end of the hallway, wearing identical grins. I stepped aside to make room for them, but instead of moving on, they crowded around me, trapping me against the wall.
“Hey, Garbage Girl,” one of them asked, while the others snorted with laughter.
“Leave me alone,” I muttered.
“Listen, uh, we just finished eating, so here.”
Before I realized what they were up to, my arms were suddenly laden with empty cardboard takeaway boxes, paper cups and discarded plastic spoons and forks, some of which still dripped with sauces and leftover drink. I found myself trying to juggle the heap of garbage while the boys laughed and warned me not to litter. I had to locate the closest garbage bins, and when I was sorting the trash into the appropriate bins, I heard laughter and exclamations of disgust behind me from passing students.
“Oh my God, yuck! What is she doing?”
“Is she picking through the garbage?”
“Hah! It suits her.”
“Serves her right for getting Christian into trouble.”
I’m okay, I told myself as tears blurred my vision. This is nothing I can’t handle. I’m okay.
The rest of the day passed in relative peace, and soon it was time for detention. I waved goodbye to Jenneth, then made my way to the small room beside the faculty office, bare except for a single table and four uncomfortable-looking folding chairs, where we were to write our essays and serve our detention time. Taking a deep breath, I reached for the knob, but a hand beat me to it and pushed the door open for me.
“After you, my lady,” Christian said, sketching a small bow.
I took the chair in the corner of the table opposite him in an attempt to stay as far away from him as I could. Our homeroom teacher came in, handed us sheets of paper and told us to write an essay on the theme of “love of Christ and love of neighbor” within an hour or for as long as it took for us to finish. Then she left, promising to return later to check on us.
Love of Christ and love of neighbor. I tapped my pen against my lip, then looked over at detention-mate, who was leaning back in his chair and tossing his own pen up and down in the air like a baton. I don’t want to love my neighbor, I thought sourly. I want to strangle him.
He noticed my stare and gave me a mocking smile. “Jeez, the look on your face right now. Aren’t you supposed to be thinking about love of Christ and love of neighbor?” he remarked, correctly guessing the direction of my thoughts.
“Aren’t you the least bit sorry you got us into this mess?”
He leaned back in his chair some more, balancing it precariously on its back legs. “Can’t say that I am,” he answered blithely, addressing the ceiling.
I scowled at him. “Well, you should be. Right now, you could’ve been spending what precious little free time we have playing soccer or hanging out with your friends. Instead, you’re stuck here inside this jail cell writing essays, with no one but me for company. You cut a lousy deal this time, Christian, admit it.”
“What if I told you I don’t mind the outcome of the deal at all?” When I fell silent, he turned and looked straight at me. “What if I told you I want to be stuck in a room writing essays with you?”
My heart stopped then restarted in double time, and a blush began to climb up my face. “I’d say you were lying,” I retorted.
His eyes flashed ice. “And I’d say I’m not the only one here who lied.”
Huh? I gaped at him, thrown for a loop by his statement. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked when I finally found my voice again.
He turned away and began tossing his pen up and down again, still while balancing on his chair. “Why did you put that training schedule inside my binder?”
“What? I just—wait, I asked you—”
My mouth opened and closed a couple of times. “I remember how much you love soccer. And you said you wanted to try out for the soccer team at your school in New York,” I replied, annoyed at how easily he’d turned the tables so that I ended up as the one being interrogated.
He pinned me with a look. “The truth, Joy.”
“That is the truth.” He raised his eyebrows, and I gave in. “Fine. I also thought you’re not a right fit for 2A-Rizal and that you’re better off in 2B-Del Pilar. All your friends are there. You belong with them, with the cool rich kids, and not with uncool, unpopular nerds like us.”
“Is that what you think?” he drawled.
“Yes, it’s what I think,” I snapped. “Furthermore, in case you haven’t noticed it yet, our section gets saddled with the most school work. If you stay in 2A-Rizal, you won’t have enough time to do much of anything, let alone train with the soccer team, so I thought the schedule might, you know, nudge you in the right direction. Because honestly, you’re too good not to be on the team, Christian,” I added softly, remembering his lethal grace on the soccer field. “You deserve to be out there, playing for St. Helene. It’s what you’ve always wanted.”
His lips twisted. “Listen to you. So sure about the things I’ve always wanted when you don’t even know…”
“Don’t even know what?” I asked, frowning.
“Nothing. Forget it. So what do you get out it?” His chair dropped back down with a bang as he leaned forward. “You talk about cutting deals, Joy. If I do transfer to 2B-Del Pilar, what do you get out of it?”
Suddenly unable to hold his gaze, I dropped my eyes to the flecks of sauce and juice staining my white blouse, drippings from the trash heaped upon me earlier. I was going to spend the night soaking my blouse in the laundry room again, after all. “I get my life back,” I whispered.
He was quiet for so long that I had to look up again, and found him staring at me with that strange expression again. “So I messed up your life, huh?”
I rolled my eyes at that singularly dumb comment. “I’m stuck here with you writing an essay about love of Christ and love of neighbor. Trust me, this didn’t use to happen before.”
“Trust you?” He laughed at that, but it wasn’t a pleasant laugh. It sent a little shiver through me, not to mention it sparked a whole new storm of confusion. “I’m going to tell you something that someone else told me a little while back,” he began in a conversational tone. “You don’t get to decide where I belong or don’t belong. And you don’t get to tell me whether I can or can’t have what I want. Staying in 2A-Rizal, playing on the team—it’s not going to be one or the other for me.” He leaned his elbows on the table and propped his chin on his arms, trapping me in a strange, intense gaze. “I don’t know about trusting you, Joy, but you can trust this: in the end, I always get what I want.”
There was that funny quivering feeling in my stomach again. “And what exactly do you want?” I asked, hating the breathless quality in my voice.
He flashed me a grin—the same warm, cocky, fearless grin of the Christian I remembered. “What I’ve always wanted,” he answered in a husky voice.
Our homeroom teacher came in then, and we quickly got down to writing our essays. It took us about forty minutes to finish, extending our detention a little past the designated hour, but I was surprised to find that I didn’t mind spending all that time in Christian’s company, even if we did spend half of it writing some boring essay and the other half having a…what was it, anyway? A fight? An argument? A discussion? I didn’t even know.
For once, it wasn’t raining that afternoon, and when Christian and I stepped out of the high school building, we were greeted by the sight of a magnificent sunset, bathing the whole of Sampaguita Street and players still training in the soccer field in red-gold light. Without exchanging a word, we paused on the stairs of the high school entrance to take it in, with Christian standing a couple of steps below me, putting my head at the level of his.
“No matter how many times I see it, this view never gets old,” I murmured, then winced when I remembered to whom I was saying it. Great. Now he’s going to tease for being maudlin.
I risked a glance at him, and found him watching me with an indescribable look on his face. He quickly turned toward the sunset, his face reddening. “Yeah, I know what you mean,” he replied, rubbing the back of his head, then added gruffly: “Come on, I’ll walk you home.” He strode off without waiting for my response.
“What? No, wait, you don’t have to.” I hurried after him while he stopped to let me catch up. “I live at the House—I mean, Ascension House, and I’m perfectly safe here. It’s past six. I’m sure you have someone waiting—are you even listening to me?” I huffed indignantly as he continued to walk down Sampaguita Street.
He grinned at me. “Nope. Didn’t hear a word you said. Besides, Mang Chito won’t mind waiting a little longer.”
“Mang Chito!” I smiled at the mention of a name from the past. “He’s still driving you around? How is he?”
“Doing pretty well. Just as long as you don’t mention the—you know, territorial expansion at the top, especially while he’s driving.” Christian made a gesture with his hand indicating the top of his head, and I giggled.
“And what about Alex?” I went on, this time referring to his little brother. “The last time I saw him, he was still a baby. He must be so big now.”
His face lit up like one of the nearby streetlights. “Alex is great. He’s almost five now, and he’s already going to preschool. Not at St. Helene, though, but closer to home, although he’ll be able to enter the St. Helene elementary school soon. Plus, he’s so cute. You want to see his picture?”
To my surprise and amusement, he proceeded to whip out his wallet and show me a small photo of Tita Cathy, his mom, seated on a garden seat and holding an adorable, solemn-faced little tyke on her lap. “Awww. You’re right, he is cute,” I commented, then had to laugh. “Or are we just saying that because he looks like a miniature version of you?”
“So you think I’m cute, huh?” he asked teasingly.
“Christian, the entire school worships the ground you walk on. Get over yourself,” I responded dryly, then turned back to the photo in his wallet. “You keep a photo of your mom and little brother in your wallet? Don’t tell me you’re one of those over-protective, overly doting big brother types.”
“If you tell anyone, I’ll deny everything,” he retorted with a laugh.
“But what about—” I trailed off, belatedly noticing that there was another photo behind the one of his mom and brother. Ah, I thought, my heart aching. That answers my question. “What about Tita Cathy? How’s she doing? I wonder if she and Nanay are ever going to get together sometime soon,” I said instead as I gave him his wallet back. I’d told my family that Christian and his family had come home, and my mother had been surprised and curious about how her best friend from high school was doing.
My family’s reaction to the news that Christian was now going to St. Helene had been a bit more…animated. Fortunately, I managed to dissuade Ate Grace from storming St. Helene and dragging Christian out into the street by his hair.
At the mention of his mother, the warmth and openness in Christian’s demeanor evaporated, to be replaced by a distant politeness. “She’s fine. Busy with work and all. By the way, we’re here.”
We stopped at the bottom of the front steps of Ascension House, the glow from the lobby and cafeteria windows welcoming. A few House kids came in from the direction of the southern gate of the campus after a trip to the outside. They smiled and called out my name, shooting Christian inquisitive looks as they jogged up the stairs. “Yes. My home away from home,” I said somewhat lamely. “Um, thanks for walking me here.”
He shrugged it off. “You know, I’ve been wondering for a while now what happened to you,” he said, waving a hand at the sauce and juice stains on my blouse. “Were you in a food fight that I didn’t hear about?”
I looked at him sharply. “You mean you don’t know?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t be asking you now, would I?” he countered, coolly returning my gaze. “What happened, Joy?”
I stared at him as I mentally tweaked a few assumptions. “I—I had a little accident over lunch,” I explained. “I was clumsy, and I knocked some food over, that’s all.”
He seemed to accept my answer, and with a final nod at each other, we turned to go our separate ways.
“Oh yeah, one more thing.”
Half-way up the steps, I halted and glanced over my shoulder at him. He stood with his hands in his pockets and his body half-turned toward me. The light from a streetlamp cast his features in alabaster as he looked up at me.
“I’m giving you fair warning, Joy,” he said, a small smile playing on his lips, “because from now on, I plan to mess up your life even more.”
Later that night, before turning off the light and climbing into my bunkbed, I reached into my wardrobe for my tin box and extracted not just my turtle cutout but the photo of Christian with his girlfriend that Nikki had given me as well. I taped these to the mirror in my wardrobe, along with several Post-its with the word “No!” scrawled on them in red ink. God knew I needed the warning now more than ever. Christian had already rejected me before, casting me off like an old toy he’d lost interest in, and I had the document to prove it. Besides, he had a girlfriend now—beautiful, blond Ashley from New York, whose picture he kept in his wallet, hidden behind the photo of his mother and little brother.
I couldn’t let my guard down around him even for one second. I couldn’t afford to have both my heart and my self-respect tossed out onto the curb once again.
Nonetheless, I lay awake in the dark and thought about him, wrestling with all the puzzling hints he’d given me. He doesn’t trust me because I lied to him? Honestly, who’s the delusional loony now?
From now on, I plan to mess up your life even more.
I turned over on my side and punched my pillow in frustration over the fact that right at that moment, he was succeeding beyond his wildest dreams. And that tomorrow, there was a new threat at school I had to face. And that I was no closer to figuring out why Christian hated me as much as he did.
Eventually, I managed to fall asleep with an ache in my chest and a tickle in my throat. Because for one red-golden moment as we walked side by side, it was as if Christian had never left.