The peasant girl could only stare in mute dismay at the bleakness in the prince’s face. “I must recover the lost piece of my heart and restore it to its rightful place,” he said as he donned his tunic again. “Doing so will destroy this vine and break the curse upon me.”
“But I don’t understand. How could I have done this terrible thing to you?” the peasant girl cried.
“The vine started to grow as soon as we parted, which means I lost the fragment of my heart in your country. You have been found to be in possession of my silver ring, so you must have the missing fragment of my heart as well.” The prince crossed to a wall upon which several weapons were mounted, and drew a sword from its scabbard. Turning, he walked toward the peasant girl, and raised the tip of his sword to her throat. “Return it to me, girl,” he said. “Find the missing piece of my heart and return it to me, and I will spare your life.”
Over the gleaming length of the blade at her throat, the peasant girl met the prince’s implacable gaze and realized then what had happened to him. “I understand, Your Highness. I will help you find the lost fragment of your heart. But I must ask you: Are you prepared to make the sacrifice needed to break this curse?”
The blade pressed more deeply against her throat. “What is this talk of sacrifice?” the prince demanded. “Return the fragment of my heart to me now. This is my command. There is no need for any sacrifice.”
“No, Your Highness. Your doctors and sages have not told you the whole story,” she replied calmly, ignoring the blood trickling down her throat from where the sword pierced her skin. “I have seen this malady before in my journey to this kingdom. I have seen this curse destroy lives, and I have seen this same curse broken. The heart is no simple organ, and restoring a broken fragment of it requires the use of magic. To invoke this magic, a sacrifice is needed.”
The prince scowled. “Magic? What kind of magic?”
“The kind of magic that can heal a broken heart. I can help you, Your Highness, but you must trust me. You did once before, even if you have no memory of it. Will you not allow yourself to trust me again?” the peasant girl asked softly, and she held her breath as she waited for his answer.
– – – – – – – –
“Discipline” was the theme for the next day’s detention essay. I finished my essay and put my pen down, feeling drained and fuzzy-headed. I’d spent much of last night lying awake in bed alternating between worrying about Christian and the state we left him in, and trying to convince myself that I wasn’t worried about Christian or whatever state he was in. I was paying for those sleepless hours now.
I checked my watch. Seventeen minutes before lunch period ended. I pulled the takeaway box of garlic fried rice and sausage closer to me—again, a second helping of breakfast from the House’s cafeteria. As I ate, I stared out the window of the empty classroom I was sitting alone in, which served as my detention cell for now since Maisha was doing her prayers in the detention room, and pondered the weirdness of the day so far.
For one thing, there had been no black-Sharpie paper in the front hall bulletin board that morning, or anywhere else in the school so far. It had been a relief for all of us, and for me, especially, but I somehow found myself wondering what had happened. Did our mystery author-artist finally get tired of spewing out nastiness and give up? Or was she simply sick or sleeping in or giving herself a much-needed break? Could it be that yesterday’s edition was the last we would see of those papers? Would I finally be able to get on with reclaiming the life I used to live before Christian and those posters showed up?
Something told me not to bet on that just yet. Also, there was the small matter of the Protect the Prince Club. They hadn’t done anything yet, but I could sense a pressure building, a tension in the air that I felt as a tightening in the back of my neck and a cramping in my gut with each muttered comment, each muffled laugh, each sly or hostile glance in my direction. Neither were my friends and the other House kids relaxing their vigilance just yet, and Ate Kath had even repeated her warning to me and the others earlier in the shower room. All this waiting for the other shoe to drop was driving me nuts, and a part of me wanted to stand up in the middle of the covered courtyard and shout at them to do their worst, just so we could all get it over with.
Honestly, a Protect the Prince Club? Of all the silliest ideas, I thought testily. As if Christian needed that kind of protection.
An image of him standing alone in the hallway looking empty and defeated drifted through my mind for the hundredth time since I woke up feeling like a sack full of sand, which my early morning wake-up jog had only partly alleviated. For the hundredth time, he’ll be okay, I argued with my mind. Well, probably okay. Besides, it’s not like there’s anything I can do about it now except stay out of his way. It’ll be better for him, too, since lately we can’t seem to get within ten feet of each other without triggering some kind of explosion.
That’s not exactly true, my mind countered, drawing up the memory of the other afternoon when Christian walked me home. Besides, you’re not exactly sure that he’s okay, are you?
I cast back to this morning before our first class, after I’d gone to the faculty room to talk to my homeroom teacher about moving my detention sentence for the day during lunch period. While my reason for moving my detention up was so I could have time to tutor my kids later that afternoon, I couldn’t deny that a cowardly part of me jumped at the chance to avoid another close encounter with Christian, especially since Nathan was going to be around as well. I still shivered at the memory of Christian slamming Nathan against the wall and threatening him, then cringed when that was inevitably followed by the memory of me walloping Christian a second time. Honestly, I still felt twinges of pain in my hand, so I had to wonder how badly I’d hurt him.
I found out when I got to our classroom at the same time he did. We both froze with our hands reaching for the door knob, and stared at each other. Or rather, I stared at the patch of gauze bandaged to his left cheek, just below the cheekbone. I couldn’t help but wince at the sight of it, and I made a sound in my throat that might have been an apology. Then my eyes met his and I went tense, waiting for him to lash out at me.
But he didn’t do anything. Or even say anything. The faint spark of surprise in his eyes turned into a flash of pain, then dimmed to a dull haze just before he turned aside. He opened the door for me and stepped back to give me room to pass, without even the slightest nod of acknowledgment. I scuttled to my seat more or less unnoticed while our classmates greeted Christian warmly as he followed me in. He returned their greetings in a somewhat subdued manner, until someone asked him how he’d gotten the injury to his face.
I went still in the middle of taking out my pencil case, wondering if this was the moment I made myself the most universally reviled person in the entire campus—the unworthy one who dared lay a hand upon St. Helene’s beloved prince. Then I found myself blinking down at my desk when I heard him say: “This? I was playing catch and I got distracted.”
The questioner snorted in disbelief. “You got hit by a ball? You? That’s impossible.”
“Yeah, well, I mess up, too, you know. And when I mess up, I mess up big time,” Christian added in a low voice I had to strain to hear. Our teacher came in before his questioner could ask him to explain that remark, and I pushed away the disappointment by writing “focus focus focus” on a Post-it and sticking this to my notebook page.
This continued for the rest of the morning, and by this, I mean nothing. I avoided him as best I could, keeping my gaze lowered or focused intently on our teacher, while simultaneously trying to act as if I wasn’t concentrating on the sound of his voice whenever he spoke and analyzing it painstakingly inside my head. Did he sound unusually restrained? Was he forcing himself to act cheerful? Could that be a faint hollow tone beneath his laugh? Wait, I was mad at him, wasn’t I? I wanted to have nothing more to do with him or his unwarranted accusations that I’d been the one to break our promise. So how come just the faintest hint of sorrow in him could make my chest ache so much?
And Christian, for his part, cooperated fully with my plan to avoid him by pretending I didn’t exist. He didn’t speak to me, he didn’t go near me, he didn’t even look in my direction if he could help it. The one time I had to pass a workbook to him, he took it from me with only a nod of thanks, and without once meeting my eyes. Oh, he spoke to everyone else, even traded jokes with the boys and smiled at the girls until they blushed and giggled and preened. In short, he acted almost like normal, and it seemed I was the only one who noticed that I’d become a spot of empty air to him, invisible and ignored.
But I did notice. And it annoyed me to no end that I noticed. I was still mad at him, not least because last night he’d finally succeeded in doing what he hadn’t quite managed to do back when we were kids: He’d frightened me. There had been a moment when I was terrified that the violence within him—that dark, burning rage that I’d only caught glimpses of when we were younger—was going to spiral out of his control and overwhelm us all. Christian was every bit as bright and friendly and warm as everyone in St. Helene thought he was, but oceans of fire and ice lay underneath, and I had to wonder at how easily those subterranean waters could break through to the surface.
Then I wondered if the dikes he’d built inside his mind would be enough to contain them.
With a start, I realized I’d been lost in thought for a while—gone wandering somewhere inside my head again, as Christian described it. I checked the time, then winced. Little over five minutes before my next class. I cleaned up the remains of my lunch, grabbed my bag, my books and my essay, and went to the faculty room to place the essay on my homeroom teacher’s desk before hurrying off to my next classroom.
It was only when a group of girls met me as I came down the stairs that I realized I’d forgotten all about Ate Kath’s warning not to walk around the school alone. They fanned out across the steps, blocking my way, and they wore identical bright, innocent smiles that served as clear warning signals.
“Hi, there. You’re Joy, right? Thank God you showed up,” one of them said. “We really need your help.”
“My help?” I asked warily, watching from the corner of my eye as two of them came up to flank me.
“Yeah. You see, we were supposed to get this box of supplies up on a shelf in the broom closet—”
“—but we couldn’t reach it,” piped in another. They were herding me down the stairs now to the tiny storage room built underneath the stairs. The door was open and the light was on, and they pointed to a cardboard box sitting high up on one of the shelves. “Can you do it? Can you get that box for us?” the second girl asked me.
I looked at the girls, who were all either my height or just a little shorter than I was. As if sensing the direction of my thoughts, the first girl pouted cutely. “Please, Joy? You’re so much bigger and stronger than we are.”
“I don’t know.” I took a step back, only to feel hands firmly on my shoulders, upper arms and back, pushing me toward the open door.
“Please? We promise you that box’ll be light. It’s just full of rags and stuff.”
“Come on, it’s just one box. What’s the big deal?”
“Yeah, don’t be such a lazy tub of—”
I tried to shake the hands off, but they only clutched at me even more tightly. “Look, I’m sorry, but I need to get to class. You can get that box down yourselves.”
The first girl narrowed her eyes at me, then glanced at her companions. “Fine. If you’re going to be like that…”
The next thing I knew, I was being shoved into the tiny room, and when I spun around, the door had swung shut, with the latch locking with a click. Then the light went off, leaving me in total darkness except for the strip of light underneath the door.
“Hey!” I cried as I banged at the door. “Open this door! Let me out!”
“God, what an obnoxious slug,” one of the girls said, her voice muffled coming through from the other side of door.
Another girl giggled. “Ew, I touched her. I need to wash my hands.”
“We don’t have time. Here, have some cologne…”
Their voices faded as they moved away. A minute later, the school bell chimed, signaling the start of class. I banged on the door with both hands, yelling for all I was worth, but I knew that with most people already inside their classrooms, there was little chance of anyone hearing me. In the near-pitch darkness, the minutes stretched and warped until it became hard to tell how much time had passed, but I kept on pounding at the door and crying for someone to let me out. It was the only way I could stave off the creeping panic triggered by being in a dark, closed-off space, breathing in hot, stale air that smelled of chemicals. How long am I going to be trapped in here? What if nobody ever hears me? What if nobody ever comes? Let me out, let me out, please someone help—
I was lucky, though. After what felt like an eternity but turned out to be a little over half an hour, the door abruptly fell open, nearly sending me to my knees on the floor. I blinked up through the flood of brightness at the janitor’s perplexed scowl. He’d happened to be been passing by when he heard the racket coming from the storage room and noticed the key still stuck in the lock, and so he came to investigate.
I thanked him profusely and ran to class, clutching my bag and books tightly. My troubles weren’t over yet. I’d missed nearly half of the class, and our teacher was notorious for being overly strict and demanding, prone to dishing out humiliating punishments that harkened to the old Catholic school-style of discipline. Sure enough, when I tried to slip inside the classroom, every single pair of eyes in the room swung toward me, including our teacher, who stopped in mid-sentence and pinned me to the wall with a glare.
“Miss De Castro. So good of you to join us,” he barked, and my heart sank. He was in an even worse disposition than usual, if he delivered even sarcasm in the tones of an outraged drill sergeant.
I shrank back. From the corner of my eye, I could see Jenneth half-rising from his seat, his face filled with consternation. “I—I’m sorry, Sir. I—”
“No excuses. I’m marking you down as absent for this class.”
“But nothing, Miss De Castro. You had ample time to gobble down your lunch,” he snapped, and laughter rippled faintly through the room. “Go stand outside and reflect upon your actions.”
Which was how I ended up standing outside our classroom with my bag dangling from my arm, clutching my books so tightly the corners were digging into my stomach. I couldn’t even hear much of the lecture, with the closed door muffling the sounds from inside the classroom. I lowered my head, unable to stop the tears from sliding down my face. “I’m okay,” I whispered, only it came out more like a sob. “I’m okay. I’m—”
The sound of our teacher’s voice suddenly blared forth as the door swung open. I looked up as Christian emerged and closed the door behind him again. He gazed down at me, his face expressionless, but something flickered in his eyes at the sight of me. I hastily wiped my tears away with the back of my hand, then shuffled sideways to give him space so he could lean up against the wall and stare at the ceiling, with both hands thrust into his pockets.
And then…we just stood there. In silence, while the lecture went on inside the room. Side by side, close enough for me to pretend that he was there to comfort me. I continued to cry quietly—I couldn’t seem to help it—but the sobs had dissipated, and I was infinitely grateful that Christian had chosen not to speak, because I seriously doubted I could talk about what had happened at that moment without losing my dignity altogether. Instead, I took solace in his silence, absorbing his strength until my tears gradually stopped.
Voices echoed from one end of the corridor. A troop of students had emerged from another classroom and were headed toward us, probably on their way to the library. I stiffened, raising my books in an attempt to hide my puffy, tearstained face. Then Christian stepped closer to me and angled his body toward the line of students so that I was almost completely concealed behind him. They were from a lower year—probably a freshman class—but they seemed to know Christian, with many of them calling greetings and waving shyly at him. He waved back and returned their greetings, answering their quick, curious questions about his presence outside the classroom and the bandage on his cheek with a wry, humor-filled shrug, as if that explained everything. And all the while I was half-pressed against his broad back, safe in the shelter he made with his own body.
When the students had passed by, he moved away to lean back against the wall again. “Thank you,” I murmured.
He slid me a glance, then stared up at the ceiling again. “What happened?” he asked, his voice rough.
I closed my eyes then opened them again when the darkness behind my eyelids reminded me of the stifling blackness inside the storage room. “I was doing something and I lost track of the time,” I said, sparing a moment to marvel at how quickly I was getting used to lying.
His brows drew together. “Is that so?”
“Yes.” As if I could admit to him that I’d resorted to literally hiding behind someone else yet again instead of fighting my own battles. “What about you? What are you out here for?” I asked before he could dig any further.
He shrugged. “Forgot my homework.”
“Is that so?” I intoned, imitating his earlier question.
He turned toward me again. “Yeah,” he said, and smiled lopsidedly back.
And just like that—without any warning at all—I fell in love for the second time in my life.
We faced forward again, and I let out a long, inward sigh at my sheer idiocy. Then a thought occurred, and reaching into my pocket, I fished out a small piece of yema candy that I’d bought at the House cafeteria. I spoke his name, and when he looked at me, I offered him the little, pyramid-shaped custard candy wrapped in its transparent yellow wrapper. “For detention later. To thank you for the peppermint candies yesterday,” I explained.
He lifted his hand, and with great care, I placed the sweet in the center of his palm. Unbidden, another memory flickered to life: A ring made of intertwined silver knots lay upon his palm, and instead of a yema candy, I placed my own silver ring beside his, then covered his hand with mine, trapping the rings between us.
My breath stuttered as a mixture of hopeless longing and aching loss welled up within me. As if sensing the undercurrent, Christian looked up from the candy in his hand. Our gazes held, his eyes solemn and dark, inviting me to lose myself in them.
The school bell chimed, startling us both. Even before the last notes faded away, Jenneth was already bursting out the door, his face a slack O of relief as he grabbed my hand and squeezed tight. “Joyous, are you okay? My God, I was so worried. Did something happen? I knew I should’ve come to pick you up,” he blurted, evidently forgetting that Christian was right beside us, listening to every word with a deepening frown. To my horrified amusement, I saw the exact moment Jenneth realized that fact, because he spun around and glowered accusingly at Christian. “You know, this is all your fau—mmph!”
I covered his mouth with my hand and hissed at him: “Shhh! Don’t make it worse.”
I shot a wary glance at Christian, but all he said was: “Joy, give me your homework, and I’ll pass it along with mine.”
“But you said you forgot your homework,” I pointed out as I handed him a brown folder.
He gave another shrug. “I’ll probably find it in my backpack if I look hard enough.”
He disappeared into the room. Seeing our chance to escape, Jenneth hustled me away, and together we headed toward our next class. “So all that drama about him forgetting his homework was actually a ruse, huh?” he grumbled. “What did he do to you out here? He didn’t bully you again, did he?”
He did worse than bully me. He made me fall for him again. “No, we just kind of hung out,” I said instead.
“But what happened to you? Why were you so late?” After I gave him a short recap of my encounter with the girls, Jenneth turned pale. “Oh my God. You could’ve gotten stuck in that room forever. You could’ve suffocated or starved to death. You could’ve—”
“But I didn’t,” I said soothingly. “Kuya Gani let me out, and he wasn’t too happy about the situation either. Anyway, it’s over now, so—”
“It’s not over,” Jenneth retorted, grabbing my hand again. “Just stay by my side from now on, Joyous. I’m always here for you. We’re all here for you. You know that, right?”
Nodding, I squeezed his hand back. He was right. It wasn’t over. It didn’t feel over. For one thing, there were still some unanswered questions dangling over my head. Who was behind the black-Sharpie posters? Why were the members of the Protect the Prince Club targeting me when Christian already had a girlfriend, and even if he didn’t, he still wouldn’t give a rat’s toenail clippings about some childhood throwback like me? How did I keep him from finding out about what was going on at school? And how did those girls even know where and when to set up their ambush? Had they been eavesdropping when I told my friends about my plan to serve detention during lunch? And how were they planning to attack next?
“And stay away from Christian, too,” Jenneth added as an afterthought. “Trouble follows that guy wherever he goes, and I’m starting to think it’s contagious.”
“Hard to argue with that,” I said with a weak laugh. I didn’t think I needed to tell him that I’d intended do just. Christian was bad for my heart, to say nothing about my sanity. I might have stupidly fallen in love with him again, but I wasn’t about to throw myself at the mercy of a guy who spoke in frustratingly cryptic hints and insinuations, whose treatment of me swung from one extreme to the other, so much that trying to keep up with him was driving me batty, and who had already rejected me before and had a girlfriend besides. It didn’t matter how his eyes drew my breath from my lungs, how his smile dissolved all my defenses, how his voice made me want to curl myself around him. It didn’t matter how many times he showed his sweet, caring, vulnerable side to me, or how in the depressingly few neutral or even friendly moments we had, I was given a taste of the easy companionship we once shared. None of that changed the fact that he was completely unavailable and off limits to me.
Still, I couldn’t help feeling guilty when, instead of going to the detention room, Jenneth and I slipped away after our last class and headed down to the front hall where Nathan was meeting me, so we could go to Father Ramilo’s office together. Maybe I should’ve told Christian that it was just going to be him and our homeroom teacher this afternoon. I had a chance to while we were standing outside the classroom. Then again, there shouldn’t be any reason why that would matter to him, right? I defended myself. After all, I wasn’t anyone in particular to him, just the human equivalent of poor, discarded Turtley.
What if I told you I don’t mind the outcome of the deal at all? What if I told you I want to be stuck in a room writing essays with you?
I said I don’t hate you. I’ve never hated you, Joy. Not once, not ever. I couldn’t. I can’t.
—if that was the case—
Stay the hell away from her. Is that clear enough for you? Then how about this: Touch her again, and I’ll tear your fucking arms off.
—then why was he doing and saying things that only made me feel more and more confused? Honestly, what on earth did he want from me? Did he even have a clue? God, Christian, you dummy.
“Ate Joy? A-are you okay?”
I lifted my head from the surface of the long conference table in Father Ramilo’s office where I and a few other high school students tutored several kids from the St. Helene Elementary School. Francine, the sixth-grader I was tutoring, was eyeing me strangely. “Hmm? Yes, I’m okay. Why?” I asked as I straightened and pushed my hair back.
“You just suddenly hit the table with your head. Didn’t that hurt?”
Touching my forehead, I smiled ruefully. “Kind of. Are you done with the exercises?”
“No, I’m having trouble with getting the surface area of a cylinder.” She slid a sheet over to me. As I bent over it, there was a resounding thump, making the conference table shudder.
We all turned toward the end of the table where Nathan sat with his face planted in his own workbook. Turning his head, he looked at us blearily and bleated: “Maaaath.”
Francine grinned in commiseration as another kid moaned, “We knoooow!” The room dissolved into laughter, and I was able to push away all thoughts about Christian for the time being.
The break must have done our mystery author/artist some good, because the next morning, a fresh, new poster was up on the front hall bulletin board. It showed a drawing of fat, black, monster-like Garbage Girl standing with her arms held out as if asking for a hug, with mounds of trash coming at her from all directions and the words “Show Garbage Girl Some Love” scrawled on the top and bottom.
I stood frozen in front of the poster, surrounded by sniggering people. Who is doing this? I thought in bewilderment. I’d gone jogging really early this morning, and I hadn’t seen anyone go into the high school building. Could she have given me the slip somehow? Or did she maybe put the poster up late in the afternoon after we’d all gone home?
Finally, Nathan stepped up and tore the poster off the bulletin board. “That might not be the only copy around,” Maisha warned as she watched Nathan crumple up the poster and shoo the other students away.
“We’ll be on the lookout,” Honey promised. “Amping, Joy. Just be careful, okay?”
“She’ll be fine with me,” Jenneth declared stoutly, making me smile.
My smile disappeared a minute later, as we were walking toward our classroom. “She and I are the same height.”
“Who?” Jenneth asked, glancing over at me.
“Our mystery poster-maker. Just looking at how high on the bulletin board she tacks the poster,” I said thoughtfully. “And she can’t possibly be coming to school earlier than I wake up, so that means she’s someone who goes home really late in the afternoon, or maybe even at night. Which means she lives close by. She may even walk or commute to school. Either that or whoever is driving her to and from school is pretty relaxed about curfews.”
Jenneth nodded. “That sort of makes—”
“Hey, Garbage Girl.”
Suddenly, Jenneth and I were surrounded as a troop of boys overtook us in the hallway and circled us, and I looked up into the snickering faces of the same 2C-Luna boys who’d piled garbage on me before. “I’ve got some love for ya,” the lead boy said as he raised his hand, revealing a crushed iced coffee can, remnants of someone’s hasty breakfast. He shook the can, and the sloshing sounds inside revealed that there was still some liquid left inside.
“I told you, leave me alone,” I warned as I backed away, only to be stopped by a couple of boys behind me.
“Hey, knock it off,” Jenneth exclaimed, only to be shoved unceremoniously aside and thrust outside the ring and out of my reach. Laughing, the lead boy tossed the crushed can at one of the boys behind me, while two others clamped their hands around my upper arms and shoulders to hold me still.
“Don’t! Stop!” I cried, flailing about as much as I could as the boy with the can yanked my collar open at the back of my neck and prepared to stuff the can and its contents down my blouse. But the can never made it to its destination. Instead, there was a yelp of pain, followed by a clank as the can fell to the floor. In the same instant, the lead boy’s face in front of me switched from laughter to dread so quickly it was like someone had changed the channel on a TV. I craned my neck around to look, and found the boy who’d had the can bent double and whimpering, while Christian stood there, calmly twisting his arm behind his back in a painful-looking lock.
“Ch-Christian!” the lead boy stuttered. “Hey, uh, we were just—”
“Littering, looks like,” Christian drawled. Then I got a better look at him and gulped. He wasn’t calm at all. Instead, his dark eyes were spitting ice, the only sign of life in his impassive face. Then he smiled—a small smile that looked completely at odds with the glacial fury in his eyes, and as a result seemed twice as disturbing. “But that can’t be it, because you’re going to pick up your trash and throw them in the proper receptacle, right?”
The boy he held moaned again. Glancing down at him as if suddenly remembering he was there, Christian released him. “Pick it up,” he ordered. Wincing, the boy picked up the can and scampered away.
Then Christian turned his attention to the two boys who were still holding my arms, and I flinched at the look on his face. So did the two boys, who released me with alacrity, backing away to stand with the others and in the process revealing Jenneth, who was standing slack-jawed to one side watching the proceedings. I wrapped my arms around me, massaging the ache in my upper arms, and Christian moved to stand behind me, close enough for me to feel the warmth radiating from him. He didn’t touch me at all, but his body language managed to shout “off-limits” nonetheless.
“Uh, listen, this is just—” the lead boy began.
Again, Christian smiled, and the effect was disconcerting enough to silence the other boy. “Let me make this clear,” he announced, and I realized he was also addressing the throng of passersby who were gawking at the unfolding scene. “I don’t care who or how many you are. If I find out that you or anyone else has been picking on her again, you’ll deal with me. You’ve all heard the stories about me, yeah?” he added, lifting his eyebrows. “Trust me, you don’t want to find out if they’re true.”
The other boys fled, as did everyone else when Christian sent them a look. Then he turned toward me. “Are you hurt?”
I shook my head just as Jenneth bounded over, having recovered his voice, if not his ability to form complete sentences. “Holy crap, that was—how did you—I can’t believe you just—” he spluttered until he finally zeroed in on what was apparently the most pertinent point to him. “What stories?”
All the while, Christian’s gaze roved over me as if checking for injuries. His icy fury was fading, and I could sense him withdrawing from me again. “Come on, we’re going to be late,” he said curtly.
“Christian—” I gasped as Jenneth and I nearly had to run to keep up with him. “Th-thank you.”
Slowing his pace, he glanced at me then looked straight ahead again. “You weren’t there yesterday,” he said in a low voice, and I wished I could see his expression clearly.
“I had to tutor some kids in the afternoon, so I asked our teacher to move my detention to lunch. I’ll be there later, though,” I found myself adding.
We got to the door of our classroom, which he opened for us. As I settled into my chair and he moved past me, I caught the faint smile hovering on his lips. “See you then,” he tossed casually, and I nodded back.
After that, we again proceeded to spend most of the day carefully staying out of each other’s way. The news of his warning had quickly spread, though, and nobody else bothered me for the rest of the day, allowing me to have a peaceful lunch with my friends and the other House kids in the Biology 1 lab. In fact, the most stressful thing I had to endure during lunch was fielding my friends’ demands to recount how Christian had come to my rescue over and over again, with Honey, Annelie and the other girls exchanging dreamy sighs and Maisha, Ate Kath and the boys looking reluctantly impressed. Nathan and Jenneth were quiet, though, and I worried especially about Nathan and how he was taking the news about Christian stepping in to protect me. But other than that, everything seemed quiet.
Then classes ended and it was time for detention. Jenneth and I arrived at the detention room before Christian did, and Jenneth left as soon as Christian entered the room, but not before throwing him a sharp, I’m-watching-you look.
“I get it now,” Christian mused as the door closed behind Jenneth. “Your friends are acting as your bodyguards to keep you from being bullied. Nathan included.” He turned to me and speared me with a look. “How long has this been going on, Joy?”
I sighed. At this point, trying to hide the fact that I was being bullied from Christian was pretty much a lost cause. “Since you arrived,” I answered, and told him briefly about the lemonade splashing, the garbage being piled on me, and about being locked into the storage room yesterday. The last one had Christian scowling down at the table top as he pieced the rest of the story together.
“Jenneth’s right. This is my fault,” he muttered, and the hand he’d placed on the table closed into a white-knuckled fist.
“No, it’s not your fault,” I countered firmly. “Someone else is instigating these.” I told him about the black-Sharpie posters, and he listened as I shared my theories about who the mystery author/artist is—a girl who was just my height, and who lived nearby or had a very flexible schedule. Oh, and one more thing. “She’s either in 2A-Rizal or has a close friend in our section. She knew about your throwing that soccer schedule in my face and what happened during morning assembly,” I went on, ignoring the way Christian winced. I did a quick mental scan of all the girls in 2A-Rizal who might have the motive to turn the entire school against me, then gave up when that turned out to be most of them. “But who would even have the time to do this?” I wondered.
Our teacher bustled in just then, passed us our sheets of paper and gave us the theme for the day: “Humility.” Then she bustled out again, apparently having a meeting to attend to. We worked quietly on our essays for some time. Then Christian sighed and leaned back, tossing his pen onto the table and raking both hands through his hair. Looking as if he’d arrived at a decision, he bent down to his backpack, produced a white takeaway box with the Bunny Vanilla logo, and placed it in the center of the table.
I looked at the box then at Christian in surprise, and he gave me a bashful smile. “I happened to pass by Bunny Vanilla earlier during lunch, so I figured since we’re starting a tradition of detention snacks…”
Opening the box, I found three of Bunny Vanilla’s heavily frosted chocolate cupcakes inside—one each for the two of us and our homeroom teacher, which I thought was nice of him. “Oh my gosh, yema candies don’t even come close,” I enthused after taking a bite of cupcake, then giggled when Christian lowered his own cupcake to reveal strips of chocolate icing right under his nose and down the sides of his mouth.
He grinned in response. “Hey, don’t knock the yema. The one you gave me kept me good company yesterday. Hah, check it out, your teeth look like they’re all rotten.”
“So do yours. And I’m not the one with a handlebar moustache, Hulk Hogan,” I shot back, letting his little comment about having only the sweet I gave him as company slide.
He swiped at his upper lip, but missed the streaks of frosting on the sides of his mouth. Still laughing, I pointed to the spot on my own face, and when he still failed to get all of the frosting, I leaned across the table and used my thumb to wipe away the remaining frosting from the corner of his mouth. Then without thinking, I stuck my thumb into my mouth and licked the frosting off.
My mirth flickered out like a candle flame the instant I realized what I’d done. I plopped back in my chair, blushing furiously. “Sorry. I shouldn’t have done that,” I mumbled.
“Joy, can we talk?”
The note of pleading in his voice made me look at him in faint surprise. He met my gaze directly, his own cheeks tinged with red. “We are talking,” I answered, injecting a lightness I didn’t feel into my tone. Somehow, the atmosphere had shifted from friendly banter over cupcakes to something almost electric. It made my stupid heart start beating twice as fast, and it didn’t help to know that my own carelessness had played a hand in this.
He shifted his gaze to the tabletop, his shoulders slumping in defeat. “I know we are. And I’m glad you’re still willing to talk to me at all after—well, after everything,” he said with a sad little chuckle. “I know it won’t make up for all the hurt I caused you, but I just want a chance to apologize to you, and to explain what happened. You’re right. An explanation is the least I owe you.” He looked up again, and the mixture of desperate appeal and hopelessness in his eyes nearly did me in. “Please. One chance. That’s all I’m asking for.”
Tell him no, the voice of rationality inside me whispered. Tell him it doesn’t matter to you in the least anymore. He’ll back away and leave you alone, and you’ll get to keep whatever’s left of your heart that you haven’t given away. Tell him no, and you can still get out of this without being broken.
I opened my mouth, but what emerged was: “Why did you stop writing me back?” I cringed inwardly. My voice sounded so small and hurt—the voice of the disappointed little girl I once was. Of all the questions to ask… I knew very well what his answer would be: He’d stopped writing because he’d stopped caring about me enough to write. It was as simple as that. Was I really such a masochist that I had to hear him say it out loud?
Hope flared in Christian’s eyes at the realization that I was giving him a chance to say his piece. But before he could speak, our teacher came bustling in again to ask about our essays. We handed her our sheets as well as the third cupcake, which caused her to break out in smiles. “Oh, thank you. I needed this after that meeting,” she said, closing her eyes as she chewed. Then she opened her eyes, took one look at Christian, and gave a little cry. “Oh my goodness, look at you. What did you do, wipe your fingers on your shirt?”
We all stared at his white shirt, which now sported some brown streaks on the front. “Whoa, where did these come from?” he wondered, scrubbing at one of the streaks with his necktie and succeeding only in spreading the brown stain and horrifying our teacher even more.
“Don’t do that, you’re making it worse,” she exclaimed. “Really, young man, what a messy eater you are.”
Christian gave her an innocent grin. “Sorry, Ma’am, but who can hold back when it comes to chocolate?”
“Well, yes, you have a point,” our teacher conceded. I bit my lips to keep my laughter in, and the conspiratorial look Christian sent me warmed me all over.
To show her appreciation for the cupcake, she released us from detention much sooner, but as luck would have it, the rain was coming down hard when we emerged from the detention room. The drumming of the rain against the ground muffled all other noises and the curtain of water outside seemed to bend the darkness around us, enclosing us in our own little tunnel of light as we walked through the hallways. With the rain falling like a vertical river, my tiny folding umbrella didn’t stand a chance, so we stood behind the arching double doors of the high school front hall, watching the streetlamps set the rain blazing like sparklers in the gloom when they came on.
Neutrally, Christian asked about Nathan, and I told him that Nathan had had to run a few errands outside of campus. Then he drew in a breath. “About why I stopped writing to you—”
I raised my hand like a traffic cop to head him off. “You don’t need to answer that,” I said briskly. “That was a dumb thing to ask, and honestly, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
Then my heart stopped when his own hand gently engulfed mine, and I felt his nervousness in the clamminess of his skin and the way his hand shook. I looked up into his face, cast in sharp relief by the fluorescent light in the front hall, and fell headlong into the naked vulnerability I saw in his eyes. “Maybe not to you, but to me—I need you to know, Joy. You can decide what you want to do later, but you deserve to know now,” he said in a voice so quiet I had to lean closer to hear him over the rain. Without letting go of my hand, he drew me further inside the front hall where the pounding of the rain wasn’t quite as loud, then leaned back against the wall, face tilted toward the ceiling.
Then he began to speak.