Chapter Four – Decode

These days, I’m mostly thankful to Saia, Lulu and the Elricks for my lessening nightmares ever since they slept with me in my bed. The warmth I felt in their presence helped keep the demons at bay.

However, at Monday came some awkward changes in my routine.

For instance, I sped down to breakfast – for the first time – because I woke up at quarter to seven. I felt so embarrassed that I overslept in the dormitory, despite the fact that Saia was sleeping beside me.

“I’m very sorry, guys, I’m late today…” I muttered breathlessly to my friends when I finally reached their place. I also gratefully noticed then that they had waited for me to come first before eating.

“It’s just alright, Maydee… We understand your reason for being tardy,” Aljee said sympathetically.

“But –” I murmured sadly, then I felt a warm, gentle caress on my shoulders.

 “You were spiking a fever this morning – three-thirty A.M. perhaps – and thank heavens, it had subsided two hours later…” Saia said softly to me, her blue eyes luminous with concern.

I felt like I was struck by lightning at that instant. I’ve had another of those fevers, I groaned to myself as I touched my right hand to my forehead.

“But fortunately, it’s already gone… I’m already fine and fit for class today, thanks to you guys,” I deliberately fixed a smile on my face, for the others to see, masking my worry over my sudden body changes.

Lulu gave me a mild frown, then handed me a plate of food.

I mumbled a quick thanks to her, then put the plate on my corner of the table. After praying, I noticed that she had given me a tender, juicy, delicious-looking venison steak with apple-mint sauce. And it was delicious indeed – in fact heavenly in taste, I should say that I enjoyed savouring every bit of it.

Afterwards, when we arrived at our classroom for English class, Ma’am Heidi welcomed us with a smile and a warm hug as a gesture of hospitality. Although we felt awkward about this, I recalled what Ate Anna Suzette, one of my seniors in the SBA scholarship program, had told me about her:

“She may be one of the most formidable persons in the entirety of Saint Bridget Academy, with her auspicious superiority… But, believe me, Maydee, she is the best friend, mother and confidante anyone would ever want…

It’s just now that I’m starting to realize the true meaning of this remark. That single warm hug from Ma’am Heidi was very heart-warming and evidently, the one I would prefer over Mama’s.

“Oh, good morning, Ma’am Heidi…” We mumbled meekly, as soon as she let us go.

“She surprised me by that, you know…” Isabelle laughed nervously. “But it shows that she wants to dote on us as a mother,” she added with a satisfied smile as we settled in our chairs.

‘A mother hen brooding over her chicks,” Elizabeth added, chuckling.

Aljee flashed a flustered gaze and a shaky smile at her, after catching her last word. All of them burst in laughter at Elizabeth’s seemingly innocent statement with the double meaning. ‘Chicks’ was the English slang for pretty girls.

While they had a short laughing fit together, I subconsciously slid my right hand in my skirt pocket. I was utterly surprised to touch a piece of paper inside. I cautiously took it out and read:

Please see me after class, Maydee… I have something important to discuss with you…

“What’s that about, Maydee?” Saia asked me curiously.

“I don’t know, Saia…’ I shrugged my petite shoulders warily. But actually, I do know what it is all about. Ma’am Heidi was interested in my composition. Especially because I had written there the truth that even the best of my friends hardly know.

Ma’am Heidi gave me a quick sympathetic smile as the class stood up to formally start the lesson.

“Okay, I–St. Francis…” she said seriously with a special kind of excitement spreading in her voice. “On the third week of September, we shall be starting preparations for our Winter School Festival. Your class is to set up a four-hour play as our entry for this…”

“Cool!” Justin grinned.

“What will be our topic for the play, Ma’am?” Lily asked.

Ma’am Heidi smiled at her understandingly. “Oh, don’t worry about that… I’ve already found us a most worthy and original piece of a very truthful and hopeful story – of which I am very proud to be written by one of my most beloved new students.”

At this juncture, our class quickly burst in murmurings. Seatmates turned to one another with the unmaskable and unmistakable glint of triumph in their eyes, all thinking: “It’s my work that the teacher refers to!”

Even though I know exactly who Ma’am Heidi pertains to, I was not fascinated about that person – unlike the others. For that person was me myself… And I am not glad for this recognition of my work since it was never the thing that I had wanted to happen. I simply want to write my story, but for my private purposes only, period.

 “Whose is it, Ma’am?” Aljee asked to clarify the matter.

“You all know that I’m teaching the first five sections of the first year level…” Ma’am Heidi said with the lightest trace of a smile. “So it’s just possible that any student from those sections could have done that, right?”

“But, Ma’am….” Our classmates groaned dramatically. “C’mon, spill the beans already!”

“Ah! Enough of that, I–St. Francis!” Ma’am Heidi rebuked them. “We’re starting our grammar lesson now!”

“Oh, Ma’am…”But the whining continued.

Ma’am Heidi preferred to ignore them and went on to write our lecture on the blackboard. “Now, copy this!” She told us sternly.

The class reluctantly became quiet yet I could just mouth the words from my classmates’ lips.

 “Unfair!”

“Why the secret?”

“Just who is this writer anyway?”

I held my breath up to the rest of the lesson, thinking about what Ma’am Heidi and I would talk about later. When she finally dismissed the class, she nodded off my classmates’ imploring looks by saying, “You’ll just see on our next meeting.” And she just went off to the Teachers’ Faculty Room.

Thinking that she might have an inkling of my uncomfortableness to be recognized in public, I deliberately lost track of Saia, Aljee, the Elricks and Lulu to go to Ma’am Heidi’s office. Upon arriving at the Faculty Room, I evidently saw that she had waited for me patiently there.

“Ma’am Heidi?” I asked her uncertainly.

“Come, Maydee… Let’s go to my office,” Ma’am Heidi said kindly, and grasping my right wrist by her left hand, she led me to a spacious blue room. With blue walls and bright accented yellow-and-blue furniture pieces, I easily discovered that Ma’am Heidi was a person of calm temperament. She was an immense reader, too, as I noticed a shelf of books – mostly bestsellers and classics – behind her table.

“Have a seat, dear…” Ma’am Heidi pointed one of her chairs to me. “How do you like my office?” she then asked with a smile.

I couldn’t help but smile, too. “It’s … beautiful, no, it’s more than that… I–It’s perfect,” I said as I settled myself on the plush vinyl chair.

“Thank you for the compliment,” she smiled a third time then she became serious. “Okay, Maydee, about the script of the Winter School play I told your class earlier, it is –-”

 “I know, Ma’am, it’s my composition…” I interjected with my brown eyes meeting her candlelight blue ones firmly.

“Oh, so you figured out my message that soon?” Ma’am Heidi broke from her serious front with a soft, angelic laugh. “You are truly an intelligent girl, Maydee…” She reached for my left hand as she stood in front of me and slowly sat down. I noted with great surprise that she had sat in the chair facing me, instead of her grand blue chair.

“O-Oh, M-Ma’am H-Heidi, a-about m-my c-composition… Ah…” I couldn’t stop my stuttering as I was nervous about Ma’am Heidi’s comment about it.

“It’s alright, Maydee…” Ma’am Heidi gently squeezed my hand in reassurance. “I already know about your condition since the first day of school…”

 My eyes widened at that instant. “Y-You knew, Ma’am Heidi? But h-how?”

“Even if you try to hide it from me, I’d still know it anyhow,” Ma’am Heidi laughed jovially, yet exuding the seriousness that sealed the statement true. “I have a brother who suffered the same condition. That’s why I understand your situation, Maydee. The way you keep your sickness to yourself and pretend not to be sick around your friends… I already saw some of that from my bro – so, you could say that I know the exact feeling of being close to one who’s got a difficult disease…”

“Difficult,” she continued. “In the sense that it’s taking the toll on you… Even if you didn’t make any sound the other day, I knew you were weeping in the middle of the class. You may have covered your face by your long, curly brown hair but I could still see the tears through them…”

I blinked momentarily at Ma’am Heidi, not entirely believing what I was hearing from her. “M-Ma’am?”

“That’s why I know that making your composition a script of our play would feel somewhat difficult for you, Maydee…” Ma’am Heidi said sympathetically. “But I guarantee you that I will exercise the greatest care so as not to reveal your involvement in this…”

“I entrusted to you, Ma’am Heidi, the story of my life, since that moment when I submitted my composition. So I give you all the rights to the manuscript now, out of my great respect to your goodness,” I said to her honestly.

“Thank you, Maydee… And please, don’t hesitate to come to me when you have any problems,” Ma’am Heidi encouraged me. “Treat me as your older sister, dear…”

“Sure, Ma’am… Actually, you even remind me of my Kuya Jun,” I chuckled.

“Well, an uncanny coincidence…”Ma’am Heidi shrugged. Then she tapped my shoulder.

“Our teas gonna be cold, dear…”

“Oh!” I took my cup of tea from the table and gladly drank it.

“Thanks a lot, Ma’am Heidi…. I enjoyed our talk well…”

“There’ll be more for us in the days to come, Maydee…” Ma’am Heidi promised me as she led me to the door.

At Physics class, I was bewildered to feel my jacket tugged by several hands, followed by questioning voices.

“Maydee, where’ve you been?”

“Why didn’t you join us for the break?’

“We were so worried!”

“I’m sorry, guys… But I’m just fine as I was earlier,” I told them reassuringly.

“Where exactly were you at?” Elizabeth demanded.

I hesitated for a moment, then looked at Lulu. “Ma’am Heidi’s office. She was worried ‘bout my paleness.”

Lulu nodded to me and added. “She must have been apprehensive of a fever…”

“She had expressed her concern to me because her brother was also sick,” I continued, while looking right at Lulu, hoping she would get my double meaning.

“Oh,” Lily said, utterly surprised and concerned.

“Yeah, you’re right…” Lulu muttered in an undertone, looking at me with her it’s-so-bad-it-had-to-happen eyes.

 

 

Today, Ma’am Monic gave us our weekly evaluation in Mathematics. I surprised myself by a keen wit and quick thinking that I had successfully answered all of the problems correctly.

“Congratulations! This’ll be your third perfect test now, right, Maydee?” Ma’am Monic cried happily.

I flushed with both pleasure and embarrassment at this, aware of Allen’s piercing glare to my direction.

Before our dismissal, Ma’am Monic gave us a very important message.

“Before I forget, I now announce this year’s Math Olympiad: They are Alfred James and Alfred Leo Bonuie…”

Clap. Clap. Clap. The usual reaction to the mere mention of those exceptional twins…

‘Benjamin Scheichour, and…”

Clap. Clap. Clap. Another round of applause interrupted Ma’am Monic, in recognition to the G-ladz member.

‘Belinda Marie Santiago…”

This time, the class fell into a stunned silence, save for my friends who were cheering on me.

Deborah and her group gaped at Ma’am Monic, dumb-founded.

“Don’t tell me she does not deserve the position,” Ma’am Monic warned the class.

Deborah shot a concerned look to Allen, which he unsurprisingly ignored – as he talked with the G-ladz – then a cold glare to me. This only meant that I had gotten once more one of the things she coveted the most – this time, an extra-curricular post significant to our academic ranking.

“Bah!”Saia said in disgust. “What does she think of herself? A math wizard? There’s no way she can qualify for the Math Olympiad with her flunking all our quizzes!”

“So, Aljee, Allen, Ben, Maydee… We’ll have our first Math Olympiad review last period today at the MOT official room,” Ma’am Monic added as a last reminder before going to her next class.

“Don’t worry about a thing there, Maydee… I’m right beside you all the way,” Aljee assured me, holding my left hand in his own. In that gesture, I felt his warmth and smelled a whiff of perfume similar to the scent of irises.

For lunch, we ordered white puddings and Aljee treated us to traditional elderflower cordials.

“It’s best to take care of our bodies each day of our lives,” he reminded us.

“Aljee, how about if one has nothing to live for anymore?” Isabelle asked him jokingly.

I thought I saw Aljee’s face darken upon hearing that from Isabelle, but it was faster than a second when he looked up to us, flashing his serene smile.

“I don’t think that one would not find what could be worth living for in his life, even in a short lifespan,” He simply said. “For a moment is a treasure wherein you will find yet another, more valuable treasure to cherish forever…”

Treasures within treasures, I immediately thought.

As I ate my meal, I pondered on these words and finally realized that he is indeed correct. Because in every moment I spend with my family, I find them, especially Papa and Kuya Jun, treasures to cherish in my heart all the days of my life.

“Oh, by the way, Aljee… What did you do to prepare for this year’s Math Olympiad?” Elizabeth asked curiously.

“Oh nothing really…”Aljee admitted sheepishly.

“I don’t believe you didn’t do anything during our summer vacation concerning our studies,” Lulu snorted. “Especially a bookworm like you, Alfred Leo Bonuie…”

“Okay, I just skimmed my notes and surfed the Net,” Aljee said promptly.

“Speaking of surfing the Net, did you, by any chance, chat with Meredith, Aljee?” Saia asked him.

Aljee nodded at her. “Yes, in fact, I spend at least five minutes of my limited time in the Net with her even now…”

“Well, well… That reminds me, Aljee… Wasn’t Mereé the only female member of your Mathematics Olympiad team last year?” Elizabeth said.

Lily shot me a quick glance with a smile. “And Maydee’s the rose among you thorns this year… Oh boy, what a coincidence!”

“So enters Belinda Marie Santiago… The transferee girl meant to replace yet another one, only the latter’s better and more deserving,” I said grimly.

“Please, Maydee, don’t say that,” Saia grimaced.

“You still do not know the whole story yet,” Lulu reminded me with a raised right eyebrow.

“Alright, tell me that one then,” I challenged her, raising my own right eyebrow.

Aljee cleared his throat imperiously between us. “I’ll do it first, guys…”

Just as well, I felt his left hand tighten on mine as he was saying:

“I can still remember the day Mereé arrived at our classroom as clear as I see the blue of the sky. She went to sit by my side…”

I gaped at him, hardly believing that some transferee girl dared to sit beside him in the first day of his Seventh Year.

In the next few minutes, Aljee and the others brought me back to the time when they first met Meredith Olvinne.

Aljee was just reading his book on the desk that morning when he heard the sound of footsteps coming his way. He then closed his book, tactfully placing a bookmark by the page he last read and set it down on his desk. Then he looked up to see the owner of those footsteps right in front of him.

It was a girl of average height with here bony hair tied neatly by a single purple ribbon. She was wearing the school uniform with two-inches-below-the-knee skirt and beige knee-length socks. She had a very comely appearance – her bangs (which were not too long to cover her eyes) set neatly on her forehead; her arrow-tipped nose was a little bit small to keep her from being haughty; and her rosy pink lips curled up in a friendly smile that showed her even white teeth. But what caught his attention to her the most were her almond-shaped brown eyes. They were curious yet unafraid.

“Ohayo gozaimazu…” The girl greeted him politely with a bow.

“Good morning to you, too…” Aljee greeted her back with a smile.

“My name’s Meredith Sakurano Olvinne. In case you’re wondering why I’ve greeted you in Japanese, well, I had done that out of habit. I’m half-Japanese, you see… My mom hails from Kyoto,” the girl explained.

“Alfred James Bonuie, Mademoiselle Olvinne… English mother, French father…” Aljee said pleasantly. Soon enough, they exchanged each other’s nicknames.

“Uhm, Aljee-kun… Is the seat on your right already taken?” the girl then asked.

Aljee shook his golden head with a smile. “No, and in fact, should you want it, you can readily be my seatmate, Mereé -chan…”

“Arigato gozaimazu, Aljee!” Mereé smiled graciously to him as she sat down beside him.

Saia noted that she had an easygoing personality which instantly clicked with their other classmates, not just Aljee and company. Except for Allen, unfortunately…

“Excuse me, Al, is this seat already taken?”

Allen did not even take his eyes off the book he was reading, to turn to Mereé. Instead, he simply said. “No, just take the chair to your left…”

Mereé glanced to her left and in her confusion at what Allen had instructed her to do, she asked him bluntly. “What exactly do you mean by that?! There’s no chair in my left side – only empty space!!!”

“Use your brain, Transferee Girl, if you do have one,” Allen said icily, his words cutting through Mereé like sharp stalagmites. “Read between the lines…”

It took all of Mereé’s self-control to keep herself from wrenching Allen’s book from his hands, just to make him look at her. For she wanted very much for him to be her friend.

“So you mean that…” Mereé finally said, after a long silence. Her voice was as dry as parchment at coming to realize what Allen’s intention was.

“Moron… Push the chair three times to the left, so you will be far from me,” Allen muttered the order flatly, which made Mereé’s insides churn.

“What’s the matter with you, Allen?!”Mereé resisted her tears and said indignantly. “Don’t you want to have a seatmate?”

“No.” This time, Allen closed his book and put it down on his desk with a hard thud. His sapphire-blue eyes glared dangerously at Mereé with enough coldness to cover the entire room with snow. “The only ones I could trust to be my seatmates are those whose words and attitude are worthy –and you definitely are not one of them, Transferee Girl. Besides, if you think that I’d go easy on you because you’ve befriended my brother, Aljee, I’m sorry to prove you wrong in all your assumptions. In fact, I hate your lot so much; I just can’t take in your company…”

At hearing these words, Mereé became so frightened that she could not speak a word for a while.

Yet Allen was not finished with her. “So do what I want you to do this instant or else I’ll do it myself in a way that’ll be more hurtful for you…” His threat was so cruel that it scared her out of her wits.

So that left Mereé with no other choice but to push her chair thrice farther away from Allen. “Alright, now here I am…” She said in disgust to Allen, biting her lip to prevent herself from throwing a diatribe.

I stopped my friends in their story by raising my left hand, telling them that I didn’t want to hear the rest of the story right now.

“Anyway, Maydee, Mereé also did some honor to the school while she was here,” Aljee told me, trying to get me on the cheerful side. “She got a Credit Award for the AMC last year…”

“Wow, a Credit Award… For sure, I wouldn’t even get that in honor of our team this year, Aljee…” I said in a morose kind of way.

“Aw, Maydee… Please don’t say that….Of course, you’re not a fortune teller!” Aljee reassured me.

“Not so,” I honestly admitted.

After we finished our lunch, we simply strolled around the school grounds. As we passed by the library, I looked longingly at the distant shelf containing books of classic English Literature – one of which I can see is Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

“Well, guys, since we still have twenty-five minutes before the time,” I turned to the sound of Aljee’s voice and found him, to my embarrassment, just to my left side, first glancing at his watch then at me. “Why don’t we go to the library for a while?”

None of us had any objections, so our group eagerly went inside the library.

“Ohh… It’s an absolutely grand collection of books…” I gasped in admiration at the towering bookshelves.

“757,850 books and still counting,” Aljee muttered matter-of-factly behind me.

“R-Really?” I gasped in awe. “Then almost every type of book in the world is in this library right now…”

“Yes, in fact even foreign Literature -Irish, French, German, Swedish, Russian, American, Indian, Latin American and many more… The school buys today’s bestsellers every now and then to augment to this number,” Aljee added proudly.

“Incredible,” I said softly, slowly going to the shelf of Classic Literature, with a Library Card in hand (Which, by the way, was given to me by Aljee while he was explaining).

I first took a Charles Dickens novel – David Copperfield. I’ve already read this, I told myself and I felt a lump in my throat as I recalled the time I first had this book.

It was a heavy raining morning for which I was thankful for, because I had the perfect cover to freely cry as hard as I could Mama scolded me the night before because she caught me writing a diary. She threw the diary into the flames of our fireplace then slapped me sharply on my left cheek. Afterwards, I ran fast to my room without looking back. Despite having locked myself in my bedroom’s privacy, I desperately had to wait for dawn to be able to cry. Mama hates to see or hear me cry, although she knows that she is the very reason of my tears.

As I was burying myself in my pillow and blanket, I heard a gentle yet hard knock on my door. Fearing that it was a ghost, I did not move even one bit.

“Maydee… It’s Kuya Jun, tuyo hermano, not some wicked phantom…” a familiar soothing voice came from the other side of the door.

“I woke a while ago to the sound of your cry, Maydee…” the person with that voice opened the door and directly let himself in. “You can’t bask away your tears in the darkness of a heavy rain, Sister, ’cause I can hear the sound of your voice, even when I’m asleep… ”

At that, I jumped out of my bed and threw the blanket away from me. I turned to my right and saw the handsome face of my caring big brother drawn in concern.

“Kuya  Jun, it’s nothing really… Solamente no hay…” I profusely lied.

Kuya Jun leaned onto me and wiped my tears away, running his thumbs along my cheeks. “It’s just okay to let your feelings show now… The situation will be worse if you just keep those feelings in your heart… Remember that, mi hermana…”

“Si, Kuya Jun,” I sobbed as he wrapped his arms tightly around me. Between my tears, I told him everything I felt that time. When I finally let go of him, I heaved a sigh.

“Feeling better?”

“Yes, Kuya Jun…Gracias,” I smiled at him gratefully.

“Don’t thank me yet, sister… I still got something for you,” Kuya Jun grinned at me cheekily.

“What do you mean?” I asked him, bemused. My brown eyes followed his hands then, as they fumbled with the lower side of his thick fur coat. My eyes widened upon seeing what they took out of the coat.

“A-A book?” I gaped at my brother uncertainly.

“Why, Maydee, don’t you want it?”He chuckled at me, teasingly brandishing the brown hard-covered book under my nose.

“David… Copperfield…” I read the title of the book slowly, as if I was reading it in a far-fetched dream.

“Oh, by Charles Dickens!” I exclaimed in amazement, suddenly remembering where I first saw that book – at Señor Antonio’s Bookshop back in Trinidad, Spain.

“Wow, you now know how to pronounce the book’s title and author properly… That’s a good improvement, mi hermana,” Kuya Jun grinned at me.

“I was simply an innocent five-year-old girl back then,” I retorted.

“Yeah, but you were the cutest five-year-old girl I ever saw…” Kuya Jun said softly, ruffling my hair.

“Kuya Jun…” I laughed at his gesture.

But now, I laughed with a melancholic tune, desperately wishing for his presence right now.

After I replaced David Copperfield in the shelf, another book that I’ve been so interested in caught my eye. A Victor Hugo classic. I gently pulled the book, but I was startled when I felt a strong tug on the other side of the book that pulled it away from me.

“E-Er, may I ask? Who’s there? D’you mind sharing this book with me? I’m gonna read it real fast, I promise,” In my anxiety, I did not quite realize that I was already striking a bargain here.

“Oh, great, this is definitely the best book for you to read,” replied a voice – that was so familiar to my ears that it frightened me. Then a pale white hand pushed the other books in the rack aside to clear a path and reveal the face of….

“A-Allen!” I dropped my hands to my side at recognizing him.

“Why not? This is a perfect read for you, Transferee Girl… Lés Misérables…” he grinned at me tauntingly as he saw the stark horror in my face. “Because you’re a miserable person…”

“So take this with you now,” Allen continued, half-smiling to me.

Then suddenly, Aljee spoke behind me. “That’s o longer necessary, Allen…” I turned my back to Allen cautiously and my brown eyes widened when Aljee raised his hand where he held Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “I’ve already got her a better book. C’mon, Maydee, let’s go the librarian now…”

“Oh, you’ve again the better things for others, Mr. Perfect Gentleman… Oh how wonderful!” Allen sneered.

I turned my head slightly to the right and looked up to the painstakingly beautiful face of the Bonuie twin and gazed especially at his sad-looking sapphire-blue eyes.

“Allen…” I said softly to him but got no reply since he immediately headed to the door without giving me another glance. But I was so sure that I saw hurt in his eyes as I looked at him just now.

But why? What happened just now that hurt Allen? Could it be…? No, no, it really could not be that. Of course not.

 

 

 

The next events of this afternoon went so fast for my notice; I was more anxious of my first Math Olympiad review. Alas, it took place sooner than I would have thought.

Ding dong! The school bells resounded to the time of 4:30 PM.

“Hurrah!” Isabelle said happily. “At last, no more classes! Me room here I come!”

“Then we’ll all go ahead now, Aljee…” Saia and the Elricks said, before starting for the stairs.

“Take care of her,” Lulu added meaningfully.

“I will.” Aljee held my left hand more firmly in his own.

You be careful there, mi prima. Lulu gave me a keen look then went to catch up with the others.

Grasping my wrist by his left hand, Aljee led me to a peach-painted room at the second floor of the Math Building that had a sign above its ornately carved yew door that goes like this:

Math Olympiad Official Quarters

Exclusively for MOT members only

At a twisted piece of luck, Allen got to the door at the same time that we did. He knocked Aljee’s hand off the doorknob immediately.

“I’ll do it.” He said in a chilling voice that made him sound more arrogant than gallant.

Ben gave Aljee an apologetic smile then followed Allen into the room.

Aljee helped me to a seat beside his and purposefully asked her not to give us another seat plan.

“In the tradition of the SBA Math Olympiad, each year level’s team will have their older peers as their co-reviewers. This is a partnership of learning as the younger will learn from the elder the winning hit of the principles,” Ma’am Monic told us then turned to the door. “This year, your co-reviewers are the sophomores – Andrew Paul Johnston, Chiara Antonia Seville, William Arthur Stapleton, and Kenjiro Hijiri…”

At one look at these co-reviewers of ours, I quickly deduced that the four of us had different reactions for each.

The tall boy with chestnut brown hair shook my hands graciously and then gave Aljee a quick high-five. “Hullo, Andrew!” Aljee smiled and let him take the seat behind him.

A curly-haired brunette sat behind Allen and said to Ben fondly. “Oh, Ben… You’re still irresistibly cute as ever!”

“You too, Chiara,” Ben chuckled at her.

The third sophomore went directly to Allen and tapped his shoulder lightly.

“It’s you again, William Stapleton…” Allen shook the boy’s hand off and glared at him.

“Well, well…”William said imperiously. “You haven’t changed a bit, Allen Bonuie…”

“So did you,” Allen said in a voice devoid of all emotion.

“Hah!” William snorted. ”Guess we’ll have a good partnership here, boy…”

I followed William with my unswerving brown eyes until he went to sit behind Allen, hardly believing what I had just seen happen between the two of them. Then suddenly, I gasped at the sight of a person I never expected to see here.

“K – Kenji-san!”

“That I am, Maydee-chan,” he nodded.

“But, I – I thought you were in Japan! H – How did you… end up here?” I asked incredulously.

“Even though I live with my family in my grandfather’s dojo, I come here to Camden every August First…” he explained.

“But I still can’t believe it!” I shook my head giddily. “You, Kenji-senpai, being a Bridgetan at the same time that I am starting to…”

“Oh, that’s wonderful!” Allen muttered sarcastically. “I guess it won’t be enough until you two are jumping up and down the floor in glee of seeing each other again…”

“You’re despicable, Allen Bonuie. Don’t ever dare insult me or Maydee; you don’t know who you’re messing with…” Kenji warned him.

“Hijiri Kenji-san! Osuwari kudasai!” I bluntly told Kenji. I know that I already sounded commanding to him but I didn’t care; I just wanted to keep him from doing a bad thing.

Kenji cast me a look of pure concern in his dark brown eyes then sat down with Aljee.

“By the way, how was your first month in this school?’ he asked me curiously.

“Oh well, fun and some ‘never odd’ things, too…” I said to him flatly.

“Maydee-chan…” Kenji sighed. “But you know your brother can do something about it if you’ll only tell him.”

“Yet as long as long it does not concern him in any way, there’s no reason for him to know about it.”

“Anyway,” He then changed the subject, to my great relief. “I’d like to take you to your room tonight. You know, that hace hatud, as you call it, in your father’s tongue… Can I, Maydee-chan?”

“Si, puede tu ese hace,” I nodded to him eagerly.

Not after that, he stood up and helped Ma’am Monic with the two boxes she was carrying into the room.

“Oh, thank you very much, Kenji…” Ma’am Monic smiled at him gratefully. “You’re such a gentleman.”

“Dô itashimashite, Ma’am Monic,” Kenji chuckled as he laid the boxes on Ma’am Monic’s table carefully before going back to his seat.

“Okay now, guys… These two boxes contain the files of all the members of Saint Bridget Academy’s Math Olympiad – including those of their kin,” Ma’am Monic said, answering our profoundly unasked questions.

“What about the transferee girl’s?” Allen asked dryly, to which Kenji shot him a piercing glare.

“Oh, you mean, Maydee…” Ma’am Monic then smiled at me, pretending not to feel the tension building up in the room. She slid her right hand inside the second box and pulled out some papers. “Of course, here they are! Want to see them?”

“No need, Ma’am,” Allen said gruffly. “She won’t have any achievements as good as mine anyway… So why bother?”

“HOW DARE YOU SAY THAT?!” Kenji shouted, all the while resisting my strong grip on his waist to prevent him from getting near Allen.

“Senpai!” I gritted my teeth hard. “Please don’t do something stupid here!”

I was not really sure if Ma’am Monic heard the desperation in my voice at the moment, but she merely read my papers without a word before turning to Allen with an unusual face.

“Yes, Maydee has joined Mathematics competitions just last year…”

“Because my forte is English,” I continued her trailing statement with a sense of unashamed honesty, already prepared for the other’s reactions.

“Then knowing that, you still have the nerve to be here with us at the Math Olympiad Official Quarters?!” Allen sneered at me.

“Y-You…” Kenji struggled to break free from my grasp, so I found it harder to restrain him.

Ma’am Monic, still coolly calm despite the underlying conflict, replied Allen’s question in her most velvet voice. “She must be here, Allen, because she has the potential to be a great mathematician, as much as everyone else in this room has…”

Allen let out a loud snort of laughter. “Ma’am Monic, do you honestly think that a useless girl whose brainless forte is English would be of use to the Math Olympiad?

“Y-You’ve… gone… too… far… already… Bonuie…!” Kenji became so wild with rage that I hurt my hands in holding him away from Allen.

“Do you remember the English Academe Mathematicians’ Cup of 2008, my dear students?” I was utterly surprised that Ma’am Monic chose to address the whole group, rather than just Allen or me.

Everyone nodded to Ma’am Monic, even Allen who had a bitter smile as he did so.

“Yes, Ma’am Monic – only too well… My sister, Nadeé, who wanted to get first place, did not get it because she was deliberately defeated.”

 “Do you recall to whom Bernadette lost in the championship of the EAMC?” Ma’am Monic continued to ask.

“No, Ma’am,” Allen snorted. “I didn’t wish to remember that person’s name, so I didn’t even bother to listen for it that day.”

Kenji rolled his eyes at him.

“Alright, then, I will tell it to you now… The one who bested Lady Bernadette in the most important Math competition was –” Ma’am Monic declared. “–Jonathan Carlos M. Santiago.”

“What did you say, Ma’am? J-JONATHAN CARLOS M. SANTIAGO?!” Allen spit in front of our teacher in his shock.

“Yes,” Ma’am Monic nodded at him curtly. “And he is no less known as –”

Kuya Jun…”  I gasped upon realizing what Ma’am Monic meant. Out of shock, I released Kenji from my grasp. Then I crossed my hands at my lap and bowed my head low.

Maydee’s older brother and my senpai – who is currently studying at Saint Andrew’s College…” Kenji said imperiously.

Allen closed his mouth with a disgruntled “Hmph!” and I began to silently cry.

All of a sudden, my cell phone rang shrilly, to my great mortification. I could just feel all the eyes of my companions (especially the sophomores) on me at that time. Looking at the phone, I saw that it was Kuya Jun himself who was calling me. I answered the call apprehensively.

“Hello…”

“Hello, Maydee… I just called to check up on you. How are you doing there right now?” Kuya Jun said.

“Oh, Kuya Jun… I – I am… j – just f – fine, siempre…” To my dismay, a sob unintentionally escaped my throat.

“What’s that? Are you crying, Maydee?” Kuya Jun asked in concern.

“‘Tis nothing, Kuya…” Alas, another sob.

“Jun-senpai!” Kenji unexpectedly interjected. I looked up to him nervously, afraid that he might betray me and break his promise.

“What is it, Kenji?” Kuya Jun asked him.

“Our teacher, Ma’am Monic, wants to talk to you, senpai,” Kenji promptly replied and my heart smiled in relief.

“Ah, Ma’am Monic…” Kuya Jun chuckled softly. “Sure thing, put her on…”

“Jonathan, can you share to my students the story of how you won the EAMC Cup of 2008?” Ma’am Monic eagerly said, as I handed her the phone. “I want them to see even in you – then a state school student yet a most brilliant boy – the fact that anyone could achieve their goals, regardless of race, religion, and social status, as long they have the determination and talent appropriate to their goal…

“Alright, Ma’am Monic. I’ll do it,” Kuya Jun agreed. Ma’am Monic put my phone in loudspeaker mode in front of the whole group.

“Ah, actually, I never really expected to win in EAMC – but still, I simply did my best there…”

As I could no longer my sobs anymore, I closed my eyes and laid my head on the desk. I didn’t have the strength to listen to what Kuya Jun was telling the others, because I feel more homesick by just hearing simply his voice. I’m missing him now, more than ever, because, he’s the only one confidante I have in our home. He usually gets the information from me after many times of coaxing me in his sweet and understanding way. Right now, I know that I must tell him earnestly and wholly about the things I am going through these past few weeks, but I just can’t. Because if I ever tell him, I will regret it as soon as the words are out of my mouth – since he has the instinct to do something to those who caused me harm. “For them to learn their lesson in the Golden Rule,” he always tells me. So how am I supposed to tell him that a nobleman’s son and a younger brother of the girl to whom he took a liking at first sight, is the one who makes me cry every night here?

Fortunately, I woke up just right after Kuya Jun finished his story. I quickly wiped my tears by hand, but when I looked up, Aljee handed me a white handkerchief with a sad smile. Embarrassed and surprised that he saw my tear-drenched face, I could only give him a feeble mumbled thanks and an apologetic smile.

 “Muchas gracias, Maydee…” Ma’am Monic smiled as she gave me back my phone.

“De nada,” I smiled back to her sincerely.

“Allen…?”

“I have nothing more to say, Ma’am Monic.” Allen simply said.

“Why…?” Ma’am Monic asked him politely.

“There is no reason for me to do so right now…”

“Oh, please, Allen… Don’t misunderstand my intentions here…” Ma’am Monic said sympathetically. “I never meant to –”

“No, Ma’am… I was not shamed by your revelations… Of course not,” Allen said tersely.

“Very well, let us continue…” Ma’am Monic nodded at the whole group and passed the files to us one by one.

While I was taking my file and Kuya Jun’s, I unexpectedly locked gazes with Allen. He glared at me, as if I caught him doing something. From the look of it, I found that I never seen anything like it before. Allen’s blue eyes blazed like live coals and sent a frosty air in the room. But when it faded away, I saw the blue soften in a calm yet sensitive expression. I then felt, just in one of the most far-fetched dreams of mine, the kindred soul in him and I was captivated by the wonders it could do to a meek soul like mine.

A gentle tap on my shoulders broke my trance – perhaps in a way too soon.

“Maydee…” A gentler voice followed, as I turned my head.

“Aljee!” I exclaimed, startled at his gesture.

“Are you okay?” He asked in concern.

“Yes, I’m just fine, Aljee…” I nodded.

After Aljee settled back in his seat, I stole a glance onto Allen but he was no longer looking at me – instead, burying his nose in his Mathematics textbook. Actually, I don’t quite know what I’m feeling now, just because he didn’t give me his attention anymore. My heart raced the whole time our eyes met and when he finally let go, I do not know if I would feel relieved or sad.

But I was glad when Ma’am Monic gave us some Activity Sheets to solve. I badly needed a distraction from my thoughts about Allen. It was not like I was going to get a distraction in a big way, but it was enough for my situation right now. I soon became occupied by the different mathematical problems – determined to solve them all – that I forgot about Allen.

Well, almost.

I bumped shoulders with Allen in my haste to get out of the room. I tried to apologize to him but he just went off to their dorm, even without Ben, to my great surprise. Ben and Aljee exchanged nods and the together, they followed Allen’s route. Meanwhile, Kenji kept his promise and escorted me to the door of my dorm room, amidst the questioning stares and cooing sounds from my roommates.

The Elricks were bearing askance on me, but I anticipated what would happen if I gave in to them, so I only gave them a feeble nod. It was then that I realized how tired my mind was. For the sake of orderliness, I put my things back to their places first then sank down in my bed, I closed my eyes and started to relax for a little bit as I felt a gentle, soothing caress in my hair.

When I woke up, I saw Lulu beside me and was surprised to see a tray of food on my bedside table and even more surprised to see myself in my nightclothes already.

“You’ve fallen asleep too long – long enough to miss your own dinner,” Lulu explained to me slowly. “The Kitchen Attendants allowed me to bring t here for you to eat, as long as I will return their utensils before nine o’clock…”

“Okay…” I nodded at her, slowly understanding how I came to be in this situation.

“Then about your clothes, I stripped the uniform off your body, and put you on your nighties,” Lulu continued.

“P-Pardon?” I looked at my clothes, then at her uncertainly.

“I left you your undergarments, of course… Afterwards, I sought the help of Saia and Lily to dress you, while in bed,” Lulu reassured me.

“Don’t worry, Maydee… We weren’t going to rape you,” Saia added jokingly.

I actually laughed at the notion of them trying to molest me. Not only are they my fellow women and friends, but I also don’t consider myself to be attractive enough for anyone to take an interest in my body.

While eating my supper silently, I noticed that my friends were eyeing me warily. I forked my bangers and dipped them in gravy gingerly. I went on eating as Lulu and the others kept on a hushed conversation.

By the time I was already munching my Rhubard Crumble, Lulu finally asked me.

“How was your first math Olympiad Review, Maydee?”

“Quite long and hard on the edges,” I muttered ominously.

What do you mean by that?” Isabelle and Elizabeth stared at me blankly.

“So it was bad…?” Lulu said, deducing my statement.

“Nay… ‘Twas good… Kuya Jun called me… ‘e gave me a boost by ‘at, ‘e ‘id…’ I muttered between bites.

“He called you right in the middle of your Review, just to check on you? Oh… How sweet!” Lily sighed in awe.

“Yeah, and I was thoroughly touched by that…’ I said to her sincerely. I said nothing mire, using my drink as an excuse.

“Hmm… D’you like the rosehip tea?” Lulu asked me, peering beneath my furtive eyes as if to try to perceive what it is hiding.

“That’s good… I knew you’ll need it for a stressful day,” Lulu gave me a knowing look and immediately I realized that she already got what she wanted from me by now. With a pang, I watched her get up from her chair and take the tray of my finished food. Before closing the door of our room, she gave a sad and understanding smile to me and mouthed “Amable sueños, mi prima…”

After thanking Saia and the Elricks, I drew my blanket close to me and slept soundly. Yet in my mind, my sleep was as sound as possible due to the unfathomable images flickering in my brain. They were dreams that were primarily about Aljee or Allen doing what they always do to me. But I was frightened by the scenes because they were arguing over me.

Chapter Three – Vulnerable

I woke up this morning with a very, very bad start. I was sleeping a bit soundly last night when suddenly, a dark cloud loomed over my mind. It brought the nightmare I had always run away from since childhood.

It was a peaceful breakfast with my family back in our own house in Scotland. Mama animatedly talked to papa about their plans while Kuya Jun enthusiastically told me and our sister, Juvie of his new French recipe. All of a sudden, pain shot through my chest, like a knife passing from my heart to my lungs. It nearly engulfed me –suffocating me by its very strong presence in my lungs – but I saw my family crouching over me with their eyes looming in concern. It hurt me more to see them in those painstaking expressions – when I know that just a couple of seconds ago, they had jovial smiles and laughter – and I tried to look very well for their benefit. I forced myself to take shallow breaths through my nose until it passed.

“You had a heart attack again, Maydee!” Kuya Jun exclaimed – he didn’t even bother to lower his voice in his intense worry.

“I’m already fine, Kuya Jun!” Even my voice was surprisingly loud, to as I was determined to erase the worry creasing his handsome face.

“Perhaps your heart is already tired of its fourteen year existence.” Juvie said in a most queer low voice.

“We promise we’ll get you a new one, as soon as possible…” said my parents in steady, eerie voices.

“About that promised heart,” Kuya Jun whispered in a dangerous pitch-black voice that was not really like him. I turned to him and saw my worst fear come to life. My chest had split open his chest with a kitchen knife and took out his heart in a way that –except that it made bile rise up in my throat and almost made me vomit – I would rather not describe to you. “Here it is, Maydee… Your own big brother’s heart…”

To my horror, he stretched out his hand and tried to give me the crimson beating organ still moving wildly. “I – I won’t accept that, Kuya Jun! I WON’T!!!” I trembled and shrank away from him as his hand and the heart grew nearer.

As I shook my head off the horrible scene, Kuya Jun and my family immediately vanished and were replaced by my friends. But just as I thought my nightmare was already over, I succumbed yet again to a heart attack. Looking up, I saw the horror in front of me again. Only this time, it was no longer Kuya Jun, but… The one boy, who I know by the fast beating of my heart towards him, is the one I would care about the most.

“NO, DO NOT DO IT! NO, PLEASE, DON’T!!!!!” I cried for him to stop. As tears blurred my vision, however, I was able to surmise that the boy was golden-haired with eyes that sparkled still with life like sapphires.

This time, my eyes snapped open when I willed them to – as I no longer could take the horrors in my dream any longer than I could catch my breath right now. I managed to sit up in my bed and raked my fingers through my unruly hair. But try as I might, I could not forget or erase in my memory. It was already etched painfully hard in my mind.

I pressed my hands to my temple and I noticed that I had caught a headache because of my nightmare. I winced as I increased the pressure from the tips of my fingers, trying to massage away the pain beneath my skin. Finally, I gave up the chore and simply went to the bathroom to wet my burning face. Once there, I immediately got to the sink and splayed the entire running tap water at my face by hand. Afterwards, I squinted at the mirror level with my eye, looking at the reflection as if it weren’t my own. The face, though pale, glowed with its natural creamy-white colour; the eyes were bright dark brown ones that sparkle with life and gaiety;  and the lips were not as purplish as before, but instead pink. A blooming spell? Wow, if it is really what I think it is, that must mean bad for me. Why? Because only in times where something significantly not good happens to me, I do feel so full of life and gay. Ironic, isn’t it? But that’s just how my life is… And I accept wholeheartedly… anyway, I pushed these thoughts to the back to the back of my mind for the moment, and just washed my face a couple more times then wiped it with my face towel.

By the time I left the bathroom, the clock in our room ticked to the hour of fourth o’clock. I laughed, clearly the time for the early bird. I then knelt in y bed to pray solemnly. I asked God to take care of my family and friends, to keep them safe from all harm. And I fervently asked Him not to let my nightmare come true. I’d rather die than let that horrid event to happen, I said to Him.

After saying my prayer, I took the time to examine the bed that just had been mine since six o’clock last night. I fiddled with my bedcovers playfully, marvelling at how soft and fine the cloth was. “Must be expensive silk,” I thought. However, my smile faded when I encountered in my fingers an intricately embroidered white-and-gold iris. I blew my breath – I hadn’t even realized I’d been holding it until now. I suddenly remembered Mama and Juvie who are always fond of embroidery, especially with flowery patterns. One of my most beloved handkerchiefs made by them had a design uncannily similar to the flower I am studying right now. I sniffled as I felt as I felt tears threatening in my eyes. I furiously scrubbed them with my knuckles, knowing instinctively that I cannot show my feelings freely here.

Not so long after that, I straightened my bedcovers neatly and decided to take a bath already. I only took fifteen minutes to do that – so did putting on my uniform, socks and shoes. But combing my hair took a very tedious effort in my part. Perhaps, I thought with a sigh, my brown hair had become a haystack due to the numerous due to the numerous times I was sleeping and having that nightmare. Moreover, my curly hair – which has never been cut ever since my birth – has grown to be so long and reached down to my waist already. But I persevere with my hair because I need its length to use as a defence and wall against those who want to make fun of me. This day, I twirled a few strands of my hair at the side of my ears and tied them together with elastic.

“Your hairstyle’s nice today, Maydee…” Saia commented on it on our way to the canteen for our breakfast.

“Simple but really suits you as a person,” Lily added wisely. I nodded to her in agreement.

“Besides that, you also have very wonderful, wavy hair…” Isabelle said to me sensibly, lifting lightly a lock of my hair by her fingers.

“It’s curly, Isabelle…And I got it from my mother,” I corrected her gently.

“Still, it’s wonderful…” said Isabelle with a smile. “ Deserves to be let down in all its majestic glory…”

“She’s right, Maydee! ‘Cause you’re blooming today, very blooming…” Elizabeth noted.

Lulu gave me a knowing look, for she knows what the others do not know.

And I, for no coincidence, am thinking of the same thing right now. For that very reason, I didn’t even notice being seated between two chattering pairs – Lily and Saia to my left; and Elizabeth and Isabelle to my right.

Out of mid-air, I had a foreboding that something bad will happen today. Even though I can detect excitement and a bit of certainty in their conversations (no doubt, they were planning something for this morning), I know otherwise. Not just because of my blooming spell but also of what I really feel deep inside of me. My intuition tells me that something will be very wrong in their plans and I also will be involved in this, in a way that I can hardly imagine it. So, even how many times they will try to persuade me to believe them,  I will always trust my intuition first and foremost – because ever since I was born, I already had have this and it has never gone wrong, for as long as I can remember.

Then all of a sudden, I heard a sharp, crisp snapping of fingers. The sound caught me by surprise and broke my trance.

“Lulu?” I gaped at her whose left hand was still half-open. “Have I been spacing out just now?”

“Naturally,” Lulu said tersely, snapping her fingers in front of me again. “You haven’t even touched your food to your mouth!”

I looked down quickly and saw that Lulu was right. I was merely playing my fork with my kippers idly, not even a morsel tried. Immediately, I ate my food, as fast as I could, for fear of being left behind. Sure enough, I finished and walked out of the canteen together with my companions.

After flag ceremony, we went to Chemistry Laboratory A. We settled ourselves in seats next to each other while waiting for our teacher, Mr. John Piers (Saia told me that name during breakfast). But when he did arrive, my foreboding seemed to come to life.

Mr. Piers shook his sleek raven head to the whole class.  “Tsk, tsk, tsk… I – St. Francis, I have a different seat plan to use in my class. Since you must be sitting with your Laboratory Partners… And only a few of you have their assigned partners right now…

At this, the whole class exchanged swift glances and words – hoping to be one of the few and dreading to have the wrong partners.

“Stand up as I call your names and your partner,” Mr. Piers started. “Isabelle Elrick and Michael Peterlein…”

Isabelle complied as soon as he said it.

“Next, Sarah Jean Lee with Go Ling Ho, please…” This left Lily alone in her desk.

But not for long. “Justin Finchfletcher, to the seat left of Lily Elrick….”

“Alexandra Popplewell, Bernard Hitchcock, over there….”

Mr. Piers’ long list of names continued and I gritted my teeth at how relaxed he looked while reading and ordering my classmates to change seats and partners. Most of those he called were paired with the ones they didn’t quite like or it can be the place that they didn’t like.

The ones in our group who had not been called yet were Aljee, Lulu, Karen, Melanie, Elizabeth, and I. Allen and Ben who paired themselves were also waiting. We listened keenly to Mr. Piers, apprehensive of the changes he might bring by just a word. But we fervently hoped that he will no longer change our partners to prevent the bad thing I had feared happening in my subconscious.

“Elizabeth Elrick and Benjamin Scheichour…” Elizabeth gladly moved her seat to make Ben comfortable. Ben gave her a smile in return. Lucky girl, she’s already friends with her partner.

Then came the simultaneous pairing: “Alfred James Boñuie and Anna Lucy Gayle; and Belinda Marie Santiago with Alfred Leo Boñuie, please…’

“Oh, no, not him!” my heart sank upon hearing this.

“Sir Piers, are you serious?” Allen said with an edge to his voice.

‘Yes, Mr. Boñuie… I am, in fact, very serious about this.” Mr. Piers said sternly. “I’d given a great deal of my life planning for your Laboratory Year. I want everything in my class in perfect order, you see…”

Allen gave him a short mocking laugh. “THEN YOU’VE MADE A DISASTER HERE!”

“Watch your words there, young man!” Mr. Piers pointed an index finger to Allen warningly.

“Don’t you see, Sir, we’re absolutely incompatible!” Allen clenched his right fist towards me.

“I do not believe this Laboratory Partnership is ever about compatibility,” Mr. Piers muttered dryly. “The essential thing here is the flexibility of the person to cope with any situation, even unwanted partners… Of course, you must be able to find how your will contribute to your Partnership’s success.”

In spite of his very white face – the whiteness was the one which a person has on his face when he is too shocked and angry to say the feeling in words – and twitching lower lip, he loudly blurted out: “SHE CANNOT BE MY PARTNER, MR. PIERS! THAT IRRITATING TRANSFREE GIRL!!!”

“But she already is your Laboratory Partner for this whole school year 2009 – 2010.” Mr. Piers countered.

“B – But, Sir –” I was about to retort but Mr. Piers cut me off.

“And not a word of protest from you, Ms. Santiago…”

“Sir, you can’t put the two of them together!” Saia cried.

“And why not, Miss Lee?” Mr. Piers asked her with a glare.

“W-well… U – Huh –uh, Sir…” This time, Saia looked out of words for the situation. Or rather, she seemed to hide the words at the back of her mind – because they denote to something in taboo. Allen’s use of the G-ladz as a bullying force… Yes, that’s taboo… The peace making council turned into a bunch of bad guys… This information might taint the reputation of the G-ladz to Sister Lodowska, the high school director, who gave them their positions herself. Oh, what a fiasco it would be for Allen, Ben, Ling and – Aljee… Yes, that’s exactly what Saia must be thinking about right now… Aljee would still be involved in the castigation of his twin and friends for the bullying they had done. Even if he had nothing to do with those things – he was utterly innocent. Another Catch -22!

“Well?” Mr. Piers urged Saia to continue.

“Allen doesn’t like her, Sir… They don’t get along very well!” Saia muttered hastily.

“I know that, Saia… I’ve already seen Allen’s reaction,” Mr. Piers said.

“So, sir —” Saia let her words trail off hopefully.

“I will just begin their Partnership here in my class as the better way…” Mr. Piers continued them in the worst way she could ever have done. His voice was as dry as paper and his smile was as bad as a smirk from the White Witch.

T – The better way?” I asked him incredulously, unable to decide whether I will spit or box him for this suggestion.

“Yes, Miss Santiago… And please go now to your proper seat – with Mr. Boñuie…” Mr. Piers nodded at me curtly. “All of you, I – St. Francis!” he added as an order to our whole class.

With a helpless side-glance to my friends, I reluctantly went to sit beside Allen who pushed Ben’s chair (now mine) to me rudely. I also didn’t dare look at him, letting my long hair fall down freely to cover my face, as I kept my head bowed low.

I thought of many things which would get me out of this sticky situation I am now. The first of them was my Kuya Jun, who I’m sure would do anything when I say the word. Not that I was his spoiled brat, of course not. I know that he wanted to very much but I never let him spoil me at any time. Why waste your energies on something that will be gone from you at any moment – perhaps even earlier than expected – anyway? My big brother loves both his sisters very much, but he adores me as his favourite… Not that Juvie is jealous about this – in fact she believes I must live well worth that I can leave this life with no regrets. “Hah! No regrets… If they only knew,’” I always say to myself whenever Juvie says something about ‘living life to the fullest’. They all consider me as the favourite of the family – even Mama, who treats me as her favourite chopping board.

The second of these things is Aljee, who would readily swap partners with me on his own will and Lulu’s insistence. But I know that this will only lead to a bad thing since Allen does not usually agree with his twin on school matters. So I better not do it to avoid disaster.

And then I thought mostly of myself, because I know that more than anyone else in the world, I am the one who can redirect my life’s course. Of course, if I did not get the application form for this school in the first place, I would definitely not be sitting here next to Allen.

Yet even if how much I thought about it, I knew that I couldn’t change my situation anymore as much as I can change my blood type. So I decided to face the music already playing in the air. I slowly shifted my hair to my right and pressed my hands together. “This is so awkward,” I thought, stealing a glance on Allen. He was looking down the floor with his index and middle fingers pressed against his sharp high nose. Rigid as stone were his features now. Should I say something to lighten the mood?

I straightened myself then turned to look at Allen, but his words pieced even better than an ice sword could have.

“Hey, are you even listening to the teacher?”

At that, I turned my head the other way, facing Mr. Piers instead and tried to focus on him.

“Each pair will have a microscope and a set of vials with different chemicals inside. You must examine these chemicals through your microscope. Sure, you kids can handle these microscopes well?” Mr. Piers was saying.

“Yes, sir!” chorused the whole class.

“Okay, that’s good to hear. Each one of you will now take turns in looking through the microscope and writing your observations on paper. I hate monotony, children!” Mr. Piers added as a final reminder.

“Alright – fine… Let’s do this fast,” Allen grumbled.

A few minutes later, we uneasily fixed our sight on the microscope in front of us. Allen was dangerously silent. Even my mouth was dry and I don’t know what to say to him.

All of a sudden, Allen pushed the microscope to my side.

“What?” I looked at him, puzzled.

“Ladies first,” he said, glaring at me.

To avoid any more conflict with him, I turned to the task in hand. I carefully poured from its vial a powder-ish chemical on a slide. Then I slid the slide inside the microscope to examine the chemical.

Two minutes later…

“Allen?” I shot him a questioning look.

“Yes, what?” Allen answered back irritatingly.

“D’you… D – Oh, would you like to have a look at this chemical?”

“Oh, why? Couldn’t you do it?”

“Well, uh – uh … Uhm… I was only asking, Allen, if you don’t –”

“Give the bloody microscope to me, Transferee Girl.”

“Alright, here…” I hesitated for a moment but seeing Allen raise his right eyebrow, I casually pushed it to him. Unexpectedly, he received it with both of both of his hands. I felt his cold icy hands above my own. Strange, they were very much alike. But how could it be?

“H-Hey, Allen… Y-Your hands are cold,” I whispered to him in surprise.

“Well, that’s just how my skin is. B-but why are yours?” he said in a startled voice very unlike the one I’ve already been accustomed to hear from him. This made me feel that this was a different Allen in front of me.

No, wait, there’s one more thing that bewildered me. Why should be my hands be the very thing he’ll notice about me this time? “Oh!!! Don’t mind that, Allen…” I muttered hastily.

“Why not? You seem to be hiding something from me,’ Allen said jovially but his face was set serious.

Seeing this expression from him, I panicked because only those people who are intent to find out something – like a secret –have expressions like that. This is not very good…! No one should learn about my secret! And especially not Allen, who I feel, will be affected by that secret in one way or another.

So to keep him from asking from asking any more questions, I gave a cutting remark. “Allen… Why do you want to know that? What do you care about me anyway?”

Beneath his arrogant-looking face, I saw Allen blanch but it was faster than a second when he laughed – his usual carefree laugh once again. “Oh, yes, why should I care about you, Transferee Girl?”

I sighed in relief upon hearing him say that. This was the “bossy-Allen-who-does-not-want-be-bothered-by-Transferee-Girl” again. I was glad earlier that he was being friendly with me but I was bothered by his curiosity about my hands. Yet his hands were as cold as mine – which is a great mystery to me. He looks healthy enough for me… so why? Why does he have that kind of hands?

Not long afterwards, I told Allen my observations while he wrote them on paper. I looked on enviously at his very beautiful handwriting. After his turn in the microscope, he went on to write his observations. I bit my lower lip to prevent myself from saying anything to him, even if I was already teetering to remind him of Mr. Piers’ abhorrence to monotony. Also, I could not bear to ruin our report by my clumsy scrawl.

By the time Mr. Piers passed by our table, we held out our report to him and he was very surprised to see that we finished our Lab report first among our class.

“You had an advance laboratory course in Inverness, Miss Belinda Santiago?” he asked me promptly, with an eyebrow raised.

“General Science, seventh grade, but only the basics, sir.”

“You’re pretty good at it, girl…” Mr. Piers gave me an odd look.

“Well, I did have help,” I mumbled awkwardly as I felt Allen at my side.

“Yes, she did, Mr. Piers…” Allen agreed with me. He had his left arm slung around my chair, like a half-embrace, but even though he didn’t directly touch my skin or any part of my body – he was careful not to do that since we held hands earlier – I still got goose bumps in my skin and felt self-conscious.

When Mr. Piers left us, Allen and I turned our attention to our classmates who were still working.

“Some of them do not know what to do with their chemicals, Transferee Girl…” Allen remarked. Even I had to agree with him on this. If we were some sort of mutual friends, I’d even tell that not only some, but half the class had no idea in what they were doing. Deborah and her friend even had their Chemistry books open under their desks.

“Idiots,” he sneered at me.

“How could you say that?” I whispered to him in outrage.

“Just like you.” was all he answered to me. This made me so mad that I snapped. “WHAT?! Let me tell you this straight, Alfred Leo Boñuie, I – am – not – an – idiot!”

“You are,” Allen muttered matter-of-factly. “When you’re hiding something that’s already obvious…”

I blanched for a moment then chuckled at him. ‘I’ve got nothing to hide from you, Allen… in fact, I’m sick – sick of you and all your questions…” These weren’t the words I best could have said that time; they just came out of my mouth.

Allen regarded with a mischievous grin. “You’re pathetic, Transferee Girl…”

Though I was so angry at him right now, I decided to keep silent, fearing that talking to Allen even for a while would worsen the situation.

I then glanced at Aljee and Lulu and they gave me a pitiful stare. It was that kind of pity that someone has when he or she wants to help because they care for you but they cannot help but only stare at you because you are in a very sticky situation. Because they don’t have the best way to get you out of the mess. Seeing them see me like this became too painful for me that I looked away from them after two minutes.

Yet my morning wouldn’t run out of shocks, even if I thought I could no longer take them. As much as we did not expect it, Mr. Piers called out

“Santiago, Boñuie…”

I gasped as I heard my name and Allen’s together. I glanced uneasily at Allen who simply looked as cool as a cucumber.

‘Why, sir? Is there a problem with our Report?” he asked Mr. Piers coolly.

‘It appears that only one hand is used in writing this…” Mr. Piers countered, raising our Report.

“Yes, sir…” Allen nodded, refusing to be intimidated – unlike me – by Mr. Piers’ threatening look. “And it’s mine – so is there something wrong with that?”

“Forgotten my instructions on monotony, boy?” Mr. Piers looked almost affronted.

“No, Mr. Piers… I just didn’t follow them for the sake of a neat and presentable report,” Allen said, without mincing his words. I paled at this instant: He plainly admitted to defying the orders of a Superior! He did not wait for Mr. Piers to react to this, and still continued. ‘Two handwritings alongside each other will be unpleasant to see and not at all. So, rather than to dirty our work with disorganized scrawls and waste our time taking turns on the paper, I decided to do it all by myself.”

“Explain your conduct, Mr. Boñuie!” Mr. Piers said angrily.

“I guess, Mr. Piers, you should focus more in the quality of a Laboratory Reports –” Allen muttered calmly, to my utter surprise, amidst Mr. Piers’ fury. “– than the mere avoidance of monotony. Don’t you think that only the microscope is the one to be used by both Lab Partners – the single thing not to be associated by individual monotony for when two persons examine a certain case, comparison of observations result to a unified conclusion?”

At this, Mr. Piers became speechless. After a full three minutes, he regained his composure and simply nodded to Allen. “Wisely said, Alfred Leo Boñuie… You really are a very intelligent person.”

Allen took no personal note to this, which amazed me.

“And did Miss Santiago have a turn with the microscope?” Mr. Piers asked Allen.

“Yes, sir…” I replied.

“She was the first to it, Mr. Piers,” Allen added, to support my claim.

“Very well, Miss Belinda Marie Santiago, Monsieur Alfred Leo Boñuie, you have a smooth, great relationship…” I grimaced at the irony of Mr. Piers’ words.

“So, Sir… You wouldn’t do something about their… Partnership?” Lulu inquired as she risked a side-glance at me and Allen.

To my dismay, Mr. Piers should his head no. “Oh dear Lulu, changes here are no longer necessary – since it turned out all good to me….”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Allen turn to Ben who just gave him an encouraging smile. Elizabeth looked over him, too, giving me her own version of the same smile.

I found it deeply relieving to hear Mr. Piers say, “Okay, I – St. Francis, Class dismissed!” With my bag slung tightly on my right shoulder, I ran to my friends. Lulu immediately pulled me to her side and threw a glare upon Deborah’s group and Allen. Then she looked at me.

“Maydee, are you alright?”

I looked into her sharp gray eyes and realized that I was indeed shaking terribly for I did not yet forget what had happened inside the Chemistry Room between me and Allen.

Answer me truthfully this time, cousin…” Lulu pleaded.

“Uhm, well, er… Was that really Allen’s behaviour at class?” I said awkwardly.

“Oh, he sure did frighten you, huh?” Isabelle chuckled melancholically.

“Yes, he did…” I nodded to her, though I cannot tell her and the others the real reason why I was frightened by Allen.

“Oh!!!!! Mr. Piers is a bastard!” Isabelle grunted.

“Isabelle…” Elizabeth started for a scolding, but her sister cut me off.

“Oh, please… Elizabeth, don’t reprimand me like you’re Mother… And besides, you know the reason why I want to call Mr. Piers all the bad names in the world,” Isabelle grumbled.

“Well, he just wants his class to be properly organized,” Elizabeth reasoned out. “And take note, most of us got good partners, didn’t we? You got Michael, Ben got me, Saia got Ling, Lily got Justin, Alex had Bernard, and Lulu had Aljee –”

“But Maydee’s got Allen…” Lulu muttered glumly.

“Yeah, right,” Elizabeth shrugged. “But who knows, maybe Allen will be a good partner to her at a time that we don’t expect…”

“Ppft… We already do not expect it this time,” Isabelle and Lulu said together.

“By the way, guys… Why don’t we go to the canteen for a while?” Lily suggested, for a change of topics. No one was against this, so we all walked to the canteen with enthusiasm. Once there, we found Alex, Bernard, Justin, Melanie, Andrea, Karen, Helen, Rose, Enna, Kenneth already waiting for us in a table near the door.

“We’ve already prepped you a table, guys…” Alex grinned at us. We did the same and she stood up to walk to me and hug me tight.

“Hey, no stealing my favourite cousin!” Lulu laughed at us behind my back.

“Yare, yare…” Alex chuckled as she let go of me, not forgetting to ruffle my hair.

“What cuisine is it for break times today?” Saia asked a Kitchen Attendant.

“French cuisine, milady…” The Kitchen Attendant replied promptly.

“Well, three baskets of croissants for us, sir…” Aljee and Alex said together. (Though of course, they meant the three baskets for the consumption of our entire group already.) The Kitchen Attendant handed Aljee an Order Form – taking his Blue Card in return – then went back to the kitchen.

“Aljee, your order of croissants makes me remember your sister, Bernadette…” Saia muttered wistfully.

“Oh, yes! Because she bakes the best French food I have ever tasted in this life!” Lily agreed, smiling.

Lulu shook her head at them. “Nah, Kuya Jun’s better. Specializing in French and Gibraltarian food…”

“Really? The Jonathan Carlos Santiago?” Bernard asked in amazement.

“Of course,” Lulu nodded at him curtly. “He takes after his parents very well. Oh, well, all of them do…” she chuckled, glancing at me.

“T’was a must by Mama,” I reminded her.

“Specialties?’ Justin pressed on eagerly.

“Actually, it’s more of regional cuisines… Mine are Asian and Spanish,” I admitted.

“Hmm… That’s great, a family of cooks!” Karen chuckled.

“Yeah…” I joined in her chuckle, but my laugh had a slight melancholic tone, as I also remembered my family in Scotland.

“By the way, your brother’s course at St. Andrew’s is…?” Bernard asked eagerly.

“B.S. Accountancy with some units in Creative Writing…” I replied.

“Wow!” Bernard had his eyes misted in awe at what he had just heard. “So, he’s a writer and a prolific one, too! Still, I cannot picture him as one who’ll be content with a Charles Dickens novel, donning square-rimmed spectacles at the bridge of his nose…”

“He never needed spectacles to be able to read, Bernard. I was one who sometimes did,” I told him frankly.

“What?! But why?” they all exclaimed at the same time. Lulu and I rolled our eyes at them. Guys, don’t overreact as of now. You don’t know the whole thing yet.

“Oh, just some eye problems,” I answered them quickly as Lulu gave me a knowing smile.

“Anyway, Maydee, what’s your choice?” Helen then turned to me. “Mine’s Architecture – I love doing sketches of houses!”

I looked away from her, not wanting to tell her that I actually don’t look forward to college to college at all. “Oh… There’s our food!!!” I said happily when fortunately, the Kitchen Attendant finally returned with our order of croissants.

“Posh,” Lulu said in her I – just – don’t like – this tone. “What nerve! My croissants are burnt on one side! If Kuya Jun was the one who baked this, he’d never let this happen to me!”

By the time she said this, I was already lost in my thoughts. The croissants I have eaten brought my brother back to my mind. Kuya Jun can definitely make the best French food that I know. I even remember those foods so well because every new recipe he cooks, it is who always tastes it first. “You’ve got the most sensitive taste buds among us… So I trust you that much to know whether my dishes are good or not…” he often tells me.

The memory of our last time in the kitchen was still crisp and clear in my mind. That time, he led me to the kitchen n his usual way. Even though I was in a gloomy mood because I was leaving them the next day, Kuya Jun managed to put a smile on my face by his enthusiastic aura. And by the looks of it, he had already brainstormed a new way to delight me with French food.

He preheated our oven at 150 0 C.“I’ll be doing a new kind of terineé for you, my sister…” he told me with a grin. I just nod to him with a bit of eagerness. Afterwards, he tells me to get his ingredients from the cupboard as I always did before. He acted that day with indifference to the pressing situation, acting like it was just an ordinary cooking time at home. I handed him a bowl of sugar, a cup of rice grains, a platito of salt and cocoa, and a pitcher of fresh cow’s milk – one at a time. As soon as he had all these, Kuya Jun mixed them in a terrine bowl very well. Then he moulded the mixture by his hands with precise care and afterwards told me to put it in the oven. Finally, after a couple of hours, Kuya Jun took out the rice pudding out of the oven and set it down on the table.

“So how is my terineé au Madeleine, Maydee?” Kuya Jun asked me after I tasted it.

“So good, Kuya Jun, the best pudding I’ve ever tasted!” I smiled at him, vaguely aware that he named the dish after me.

As I found myself thinking about this, I realized that missing Kuya Jun was the most painful reason to cry that I can’t even resist it anymore. I wept in silence –thankful that I assumed my head-bowed–low and–long–hair-covering- entire upper- body position. Then when the school bell rang shrilly for the next period, I quickly wiped the tears away by my handkerchief.

“Oh! English period, guys!!!” Isabelle said excitedly.

“Same place as yesterday, huh?” Saia reminded us. And we did exactly that.

After the usual greeting, Ma’am Heidi took a bunch of white paper from one of her folders and distributed it to the class. “Today, class, you will write a composition about yourself in the most truthful way you could do. It must consist of at least two paragraphs, with each paragraph averaging three to four sentences. I’ll give you an hour to finish it.”

As I got my white paper, I looked at it and thought about what I was going to write. Ma’am Heidi told us to write a truthful composition of ourselves. I hesitated for a moment, thinking of the other things I could write. But when I finally held my pen in my hand, I already made the decision.

God created man in his own image… I started. In the same way, we are the creators of the life we lead – our past, present and futures – through the actions we do and the manner they affect the people around us…..

As I wrote this, I felt that all I had experienced in my life and all I felt about them came out from my heart – with my pen visualizing them on paper. I find very difficult to express my feelings openly, worse vocally. And it’s been long since I had freely poured my thoughts on paper. Mama discovered the diary I always kept up-to-date and threw it unto the flames of fireplace, telling me that diaries are worthless and should never be given time.

By every sentence I finish, my heart thumped wildly in my chest. I felt like I was soon spilling the beans I had long cast in a tightly sealed bottle. Having been there for so long a time, every bean fell out of the bottle in a long, hard manner. It wasn’t easy at all. As tears blurred my vision, I occasionally paused to bury my face in my handkerchief soundlessly.

At exactly two minutes before the deadline, I finished writing my composition. It was then that I finally straightened myself in my chair, while skimming my paper.

“Maydee, can I see what you have written?” Saia politely asked.

“Sorry, Saia… It’s pretty confidential, you see…”I shook my head apologetically to her.

“Oh… That’s sad,” Saia pouted, sounding very disappointed.” Why?”

Very personal and off-the-record…” I said promptly.

‘Oh, why?” Saia asked again, curious.

“I’ve poured all my heart in it,” I explained to her with my eyes on the paper, trying very hard not to cry again.

“So… D’you have some –” Saia started to say then stopped herself abruptly. I knew instantly that she meant to say the word ‘secrets’ but only decided not to. She must have understood my feelings about my privacy well so she did not bother me with questions anymore.

I sighed in relief, for Saia has not probed deeper in her curiosity; otherwise, I would have to do something that I never wanted to do in my life. “But you know, Saia… I – I think I can also tell even more than what I have written on this paper – at the most appropriate time,” I then assure her. This time, I faced her, and she took my outstretched right hand.

“I know,” she smiled at me sincerely. “And don’t worry, I have a long patience…’

“Thanks, Saia…” I put my paper beneath my notebook then hugged her tightly.

Not long after that, Ma’am Heidi collected our papers. By instinct, I folded the top of my paper where my name was written – before submitting it to her.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but eventually I got used to my life here in St. Bridget Academy. Everything simply became routine to me – even the bullying I got from the G-Ladz and Deborah.

Nothing much important happened in the past few weeks, except perhaps of two particular events which happened, coincidentally, in consecutive second and third Fridays of October.

First, my audition for the Drum and Lyre branch of our school’s Marching Band:

I decided to do this, not because I want to be with my friends – I don’t mind being alone at all. That’s the least of the concerns I’m thinking of now. Of course, I know I would even leave my friends in a hurtful way that they would hardly bear it. I went to go audition to be a Xylophonist, because I longed to hold a musical instrument ever since I left home for this school. Everyone in our family is inclined to music and we always make music together at home. So I thought, “Perhaps, if I could play an instrument here, I could make my life here more bearable and feel more like this is home…

Saia and Elizabeth accompanied me to the SBA HS Band Room and acquainted me – while we were on our way – about all things concerning the SBA Marching Band. The two of them were resident Xylophonists of the Drum and Lyre Branch since they were in primary school, so they were able to give me a good insight of what I am expected to do in there.

They told me of a steep hill that one must climb to reach the Band Room, but I didn’t expect it to be so high. I struggled to walk up and down the hill without getting dizzy. And when I got tired already, I simply slid down the slope, without even thinking about the state of my uniform. (Saia and Elizabeth assured me later on that that the hill was always immaculately clean, being taken care of the Band members themselves and other utility men.)

After I got off the slope, I turned around and saw the beauty of the hill we just climbed. At further scrutiny, I realized that it was only three and a half feet tall and I laughed at myself mentally for thinking it to be “so high” because of my difficulty in accessing it. It rounded top looked to me like a perfectly shaped capital letter U in upside down form. A cluster of sycamore trees towered the hill with a good two or three feet on each side. Then I caught a whiff of scent in my blouse and skirt which I know wasn’t there before. A soft wind blew to me the same scent, and I learned just what it was.

“Wild roses…” Saia murmured to me softly. Bending low, she plucked one very gently and gave it to me. “Here you go, Maydee…”

“I-Is it just… okay?” I asked her and Elizabeth, doubting that I could really take this beautiful flower.

“Of course, it’s a privilege of us Bridgetans,” Elizabeth, whom I know was a strong stickler to rules and regulations, stated sincerely.

“And in case you still have doubts about that rose, I will definitely change your opinion…” The three of us jumped at the sound of a finely musical voice. We turned and at once, we saw a tall, lean, raven-haired man who looked like he was in his forties. By the initial stiffening and then broad smiles of Saia and Elizabeth at him, I quickly deduced that he was none other than the SBA’s Marching Band Master. However, on second glance, he was someone really familiar to me. Not only to me, but also to my family.

“U – Uncle Lew!” I gasped. I blinked twice just to be sure, of what I saw and Uncle Lew laughed at my childish gesture affectionately. I smiled at him, knowing that he was my mother’s most beloved cousin who had prompted her to do something about her future ages ago. (But whatever that something was, my siblings and I didn’t dare ask about it anymore. We saw that none of our elders wanted to talk about that something to us, so we just abided by their wishes in this issue. “Huwag na kayong makialam sa problema naming mga matatanda. Ito ay tanda ng paggalang niyo sa amin…” Papa told us strictly in accordance to his firm belief of his Spanish and Philippine family traditions.)

“WHAT?! You’re Sir St.  James’ niece, Maydee?!” Saia and Elizabeth exclaimed at the same time.

“Yes, because he’s a cousin of my mother’s,” I nodded.

“Oh…” They said keenly. “But you know, Maydee… It’s good that you’re here; we hardly get a smile from the Band Master even at good times…”

“Well, he’s a strict instructor, like my mother, that’s all there is to it…” I said to them truthfully. Uncle Lew acknowledged this with a nod.

“So, Maydee…” Uncle Lew said as we continued to the Band Room. “Why don’t you receive the flower Saia’s giving you?”

“I don’t know if I can deserve it…” I said to him in a low voice.

“You deserve it, child… Otherwise, why have you gone to an audition for the band if you do not deserve even a wild flower?” Uncle Lew asked me sensibly.

I blushed a little at this, for Uncle Lew was sound in his judgement. He, of course, knew of my musical capabilities as he had been overseeing them ever since I was a child. “You’re right, Uncle…” I said softly as I accepted the rose from Saia.

“You’ve always loved those wilds, Maydee…” Uncle Lew chuckled at me fondly.

When I finally held the xylophone in front of Uncle Lew and the other Band Members, I no longer felt afraid. I’d admit I had been brave enough to volunteer to play first, but I also did it so that I won’t be waiting with sweaty hands while others were already performing. I chose a somewhat childish song – “Happy Together” – but I was happy and comfortable (despite the fact that all band members were observing me) because it reminded me of Kuya Jun and Juvie and made me feel like they were here with me at this moment.

After I played the song, Uncle Lew beamed at me and my friends cheered at me. More than thirty students followed after me but only a few were chosen by Uncle Lew’s perfectionist eye. I could tell it by the way he moved his head and hands.  If he approved of the performance, he would nod his head curtly at the one who performed – with his sea-green eyes gleaming in appreciation – and he stretched and twirled his right hand gracefully. But if he did not like it, he would shake his head irritatingly and moved his left hand as if he was swatting away a disgusting wasp.

Soon only those chosen by Uncle Lew were left in the Band Room with the Resident Band Members. Uncle Lew then straightened himself in his chair and announced to the group:

“Now, now, St. Bridget Academy Marching Band, listen… I have changed the schedule of your practice from Tuesday and Thursday afternoons to weekend afternoons. This is to accommodate my own new schedule here in this school, so I’d like to bear with it well.”

“B – But, Sir Lewy… S–Saturday and S–Sunday? D–Don’t you live in Chelsea, Sir? And that’s like an awfully long way from here!” sputtered one of the drummers in utter surprise.

“Lawrence, Sister Lodowska, the Director herself, let me stay in your dormitory in view of this new arrangement,” Uncle Lew told him imperiously, exuding a look that he is suspicious about something going on. He gave that drummer who asked him and then at each member of the band.

“What about the Choir, Sir Lewy?”Alex asked him. She was tapping her fingers on a drum so that meant that she was a drummer, too.

“The choir will practice the same days as you are, but in the morning,” Uncle replied promptly. “Now, let’s wait for those you’ll likely join the Choral Ensemble of Saint Bridget Academy …” he added, as a strict order to the group.

After he said this, I found myself staring at Deborah. (I learned just now that she was one of the Majorettes of the Marching Band.) She had her dark red lips curled into a twisted wicked smile. I shudder at the sight of it but I don’t exactly know why I can’t help myself. Then she smiled at Uncle Lew so sweetly that you almost imagine her mouth drooling in honey. “Oh, Sir Lewy… I have a friend who might want to go for the choir… Maydee,” she gave me a wry side-glance. “Could you come here now, gal? Be the first to audition, or else you might be at the last of the line later…”

“Hah! What friend is she talking about here? Lily scoffed in disgust.

“So… Why don’t you sing here now, Maydee? You don’t accept a challenge, do you?” Deborah dropped her friendly façade, showing me her sly grin.

I flinched at her last remark. I know that she was goading me to make a mistake. But I won’t let her this time – not in front of my dearest uncle will she try to shame me. Instead, I’ll use her own challenge to prove her wrong. But could I? Could I really do it? Could really sing in front of all these people? I thought with outmost apprehension.

Then I caught Uncle Lew’s curt nod to me. He knows what my abilities are so I realized he must be thinking of another way to rebuke Deborah, instead of doing it verbally straight to her ears. I quickly smiled at him and turned back to Deborah. “Yes, Deborah, I accept your challenge.”

“Alright then, song’s ‘You Raise Me Up’,” The nasty grin in her face widened.

A flutter rushed from my stomach t my throat. I felt like I could not catch my own breath for a moment because the song ‘You Raise Me Up’ was a very dear one to me. Besides the kitchen, the music room in our house is Kuya Jun’s favourite place and mine. We sang many songs but of all the songs we did, this one was the most special to the both of us. It represented the love and devotion we have fore each other. That’s right, I thought pleasantly. I could imagine Kuya Jun is here, beside Uncle Lew. They had always watched me sing without making me uncomfortable in any way. So that should do it.

With all politeness, I asked Uncle Lew (calling him Sir this time) to let me use a piano – which he complied immediately. I fingered the keys for a few seconds then played the intro of the song.

Though I was aware of Deborah’s cold blue eyes boring onto my figure, I was more fascinated and absorbed in the scene I imagined in my mind. Kuya Jun smiled at me proudly and slowly joined the piano notes with his violin. I had almost forgotten that I was performing for other people, remembering the songs Kuya Jun taught me while I sat beside him and followed the words and how I had cried sometimes unnecessarily when the songs had messages similar to what we had experienced in life. It had been so long a month since I sung them, with or without my brother. It would be almost as good as the first time, if I could just hear those songs again and follow their melody in my voice.

Darn it, I felt cool tears on my face again. Even if I imagined Kuya Jun in front of me playing his violin for me, I knew that he wasn’t truly here with me. This fact burned in my tongue and brought a sickening feeling to my stomach.

There is no life, no life without its hunger

Each restless heart beats so imperfectly

But when you come and I am filled with wonder

Sometimes I think I glimpse eternity

This second stanza was my favourite, because it describes the yearnings of my young heart, especially for love. So even how hard I try to stop the tears, I could not and did not even dare try now. To hell with proper conduct and social norms. Crying was now the only thing I could do to keep my emotions from taking over my whole mind.

You raised me up so I can stand on mountains

You raised me up to walk on stormy seas

I am strong when I am on your shoulders

You raised me up to more than I can… be…

I finished the song, wiping my tears with the back of my hand. I felt shy doing it in front of other people – even if Uncle Lew was among them –so I bowed to let my hair cover my face. But when I finally looked up to them, I was so surprised to see that they were all standing – except for me and Deborah, everyone in the room was. Wow. A standing ovation. I never expected in my thirteen years of existence to have such kind of recognition. And they were clapping their hands for me – even Deborah did, though I doubted it was a sincere thing.

“Bravo, Miss Santiago… You are most welcome in the club,” Uncle Lew beamed at me.

After the audition was finished and the rest left the Band Room already, Saia, Elizabeth, Alex, the G-Ladz and Bernard stayed with me and Uncle Lew.

Without any preliminaries, Saia bust out to Uncle Lew. “Oh, Sir Lewy! HOW COULD YOU LET THAT DEBORAH DO THAT TO YOUR NIECE?!”

“Huh? What, niece? Who’s the niece?” Alex and Bernard asked in confusion. Elizabeth and (to my great surprise) the G-ladz made knowing looks, showing they had understood Saia.

“I never let Deborah do anything to Maydee… Even if she could have tried to –” Uncle Lew said, in defence to his actions.

“Oh, she did try it, Sir!” Elizabeth interjected.

“Yes, but I guess she didn’t get too far with the goad,” Uncle Lew chuckled, as if remembering a relishing memory.

“So… You… Were… the one… who persuaded Maydee to sing…?” Saia said slowly as the fact finally dawned on her.

“Yes, and she had to be desperately persuaded to defend her person from vicious verbal assault. Most times, she is too shy to show her talent, you see…” Uncle Lew explained.

Shy, Maydee? But why should you? I mean, Good Lord, you’re a soprano and all! And one with a perfectly fine and soft voice, too… Oh, how I loved it when you sang the bridge! You’d made the notes sound so heavenly that I almost I was in heaven myself!’” Bernard said to me with his blue eyes misted in something in awe.

“Actually, I’ve never joined a singing club before – though I sing for the church…” I explained to him calmly. “I find it easier there, you see… Especially when I’m singing the psalms, since the people’s attention would not be on me, but appropriately, on the Word of God…”

“Well, Santiago…” I turned to Allen in surprise as this was the first time he came my attention for something other than bullying. “Your voice seemed so classically tuned and fine with a melody of something solemn that gave me a hint that you were singing not just to the beat t the piano, but also the strum of a violin…”

“Yes,” I nodded to him meekly. “It’s because I had always sung accompanied by my brother playing his violin…. So maybe, I had been so used to it that whenever I sing that song ‘You Raise Me Up’ again, my voice still goes with the tune of a violin…”

“I see,” Allen nodded to me once then said no more. I, too, did not say anything for the moment, because his remark brought up memories of my times with my family back home and my irrepressible longing for their presence.

‘Wow!” Bernard shook his head hard – not with disbelief, it was unmistakable surprise and awe at what he had just learned about the famous Jonathan Carlos Santiago. “So, he’s an excellent musician, too! Amazing! He’s already an elite athlete in many different sports, a prolific reader and writer… And now a very talented violinist and singer! At this rate, he’s most worthy to be called a jack of all trades!”

I coughed to hide my laugh at this. Kuya Jun would have laughed, too, considering that he’s still got more to learn in the world and that he’s so down-to-earth to take that name.

The second significant event to me was Physical Education Class with Coach Luke Jamieson.

“Good morning, I–St. Francis… Today, you will do the 1K run in the fastest way that you can,” Coach Luke told us. “I will see which one of you will likely be on the Track-and-field team for this year.”

Deborah made a nasty face (even though I did not want to see it any more than I want to see her detestable smirk, she showed it to the whole class) that said, “I’ll definitely be on the team.”

Saia scoffed at her in disgust. “So conceited a girl and too full of herself…”

“How ‘bout you, Maydee? What do you feel ‘bout this race? Eager, excited, nervous…?” Bernard asked me eagerly.

“Well, actually, Bernard… I don’t know what to feel right now, because this is the first I’ve ever been in a competitive race,” I admitted to him. “I’ve only had races with my brother, you know….”

“Really?” Bernard asked me uncertainly.

“Of course,” Lulu answered him with a hint of superiority. “I was even joining them last summer, and oh –” Her lofty tone dropped to a wistful one. “How I wish I was in a race with them there in Inverness, instead of here! Because every after we finish a race, Kuya Jun would serve us very delicious food. Oh, so much food! Food, food, food…

Isabelle chuckled at her. “The way you’re talking about food, we’re finding it more and more disbelieving that you still keep your slim figure. Especially when you gobble up the most delicious dishes in the canteen, you’re showing yourself as a glutton…”

“A glutton for only the finest food in the world, Isabelle…” Lulu corrected her. “Besides, I’m exercising to shake off the extra pounds I gain from eating. And Kuya Jun’s cooking’s worth even seven hours of exercise, for all its exquisite taste…”

Then we heard Coach Luke’s whistle. “On your marks, ready, set, go!”

The boys ran first. To my dismay, Allen reached the finish line first. I wanted Aljee to win, not only because he’s my friend, but also because I didn’t like the oh-yes-I’ve-proven-myself-again look on Allen’s face. It was terrible on a handsome face. When the girls’ turn came, I successfully outran my female classmates by my record of three minutes and four seconds. However, I also became the most exhausted among the group.  I was afraid that Coach Luke might notice my blue lips and sickly pale face by then, but if he had, I didn’t exactly know as he didn’t tell me about it. He simply gave me the water bottle I asked him for.

While I was refreshing myself, Deborah suddenly went before me and swore an oath:

“I, Deborah Louise Connor, swear, by my living breath, to beat you, Belinda Marie Santiago, in everything to be contested and to make you go down to your knees before me!”

My friends heard this and so the girls made it a point to stay beside me all the time and sleep beside me in my bed (taking turns each night). I knew this was to make sure that Deborah and her minions wouldn’t be able to harm me while I was resting from a hard day’s work. I appreciate their efforts so much, feeling their unconditional commitment to my well-being.

One night, after praying, Saia unexpectedly hugged me from behind. Surprised by this gesture, I struggled to pat her left arm with my right hand.

“Saia, I hope the next days will turn out good to our favour…” I whispered to her.

“They will, Maydee… They will…” Saia promised me, before we finally slept.

Chapter Two – A Place in This World

“Unlike the others in the corner…” Saia said sarcastically, seeming to have intended it for someone. I looked over her head to see who she was referring to. It was Allen. I immediately looked away from the sight, for fear that he might see me, as well.

Then out of the corner of my right eye, I saw Allen wave insolently towards Aljee. “Hey, Aljee! I see you’re befriending yet again another NOBODY in this school!” He sneered. NOBODY IN THIS SCHOOL? Does he mean me and my other friends, Saia and the Elricks? Urgh!!! That’s no longer fair! He’s already insulting not only me, but all of us! Oh!!! He’s so ———-

My thoughts were stopped abruptly when Saia pulled a thick hardbound book – whose title was written in Chinese characters that were too unintelligible for me to understand – from her bag and…

Swoosh!

The book flew at bullet speed and it landed straight onto Allen’s head. He picked it up furiously and hissed words to Saia that brought chills to my whole body when I heard them. I then looked at Saia. She was chuckling with mirth as she threw Allen a contemptuous glance. Afterwards, she turned to us, grinning broadly, no longer minding whatever Allen is calling her.

“Oh, Saia…” Elizabeth and Isabelle giggled together, sounding almost like purring cat.

“Well, it’s great to take out your bad thoughts every now and then,” Saia said, chuckling.

“On others,” Aljee said resentfully.

While Aljee was still speaking, Allen suddenly towered behind Saia with his face contorted in anger. I gaped at him in horror for a moment then quickly looked away.

“YOU DON’T HAVE ANY RIGHT TO DO THAT TO ME, SAIA! REMEMBER, I’M THE ——”

“Oh, shut up, Allen! You’re disrupting our lively conversation here,” Saia coolly cut him off.

Allen scoffed at her statement. “Well, I do have the right to do that, Saia! I’m leading the G-Ladz, after all…”

“Hah!” Saia snorted. “But still, you don’t have a right to pry into the lives of all the students in Saint Bridget Academy. We are not under your wings, Alfred Leo Boñuie…”

At that instant, it was like a light flickered in my buzzing brain. Yes, I remember it now very well… Allen is Aljee’s twin brother. They are the only two violinists of the SBA school band. And they’re competing for school honours since first grade. Often tying for the first place… I gazed from Aljee’s relatively calm face to Allen’s furiously red face and I became scared of the jolting realization – these identical twins are really different…

But if you were just looking idly at their appearances, you’d find no difference in them. Both of them have neat, majestically golden hair. The fine chisel of their noses and cheekbones are crafted in the same precise angles. Their sapphire-blue eyes are also of the shade and size, but it’s here where I could spot the obvious difference. Unlike Aljee’s warm and very friendly eyes, Allen’s were cold and antagonistic –there was no softness in them.  Looking at those eyes made me feel like waiting for two orb-shaped cubes to melt but they don’t yield to any heat at all – so they became eerie reflections of the hardness of the one who bears them. Knowing that the eyes are the windows to a man’s soul, I easily recognized the fact that “Allen is a force to be reckoned with.”

I was so thankful that Allen was looking at Saia, not at me, because I don’t know how he will react if he caught me staring at him now.

“Excuse me, Saia! What am I? A bird to put you in my nest? Humph! Sorry, but that’s not part of my job… And I would never resort to such a thing!” Allen said indignantly.

“Oh, good… Then you already know your place in this world,” Saia said to him sarcastically.

“Oh… You really dare me, Sarah Jean–——” Allen narrowed his eyes at Saia dangerously, but then suddenly turned to notice me. I gasped as he looked at me with utter disgust and uttered a vile expletive to my friends.

“Oh, I see you’re the new transferee from… What school was it again? East Central School – for losers?!” he then sneered at me.

“Allen!” Saia shouted at him in outrage.

“So, answer me, Transferee Girl, answer me! Isn’t it true that state schools are only for the poor who have no chance of advancement in the heights of society? ANSWER ME! C’MON, SHOW ME HOW SAVAGE YOU ARE!” I shrank away from his gaze, but there was no help for it now, his ice-cold sapphire-blue eyes were only on me.

I didn’t answer him. Instead, I bowed my head very low to cover my reddening face. I already had my right hand balled into a clenched fist, but I quickly covered it by my left hand – or else, I might be able to do a very bad thing here.

“So now what? Answer me, Miss –—” Allen leaned even closer to me, stamping his left hand onto our table. Aljee interrupted him from throwing another diatribe at me, to the Elricks’ relief. (Not mine, ‘cause I got an underlying feeling that something would come out of this confrontation.)

“Allen! This is now enough! She has her own name; why don’t you call her ——–”

The next thing that happened rendered me helpless even to speak.

“Excuse me, Sir Aljee! But I’m not talking to you!” Allen muttered peevishly to his brother.

“No, Allen… I’m asking you to stop this offense right now! Stop this, Allen, please!” Aljee tried to persuade him in vain.

“Let me remind you, Aljee. I’ve got my own life here! So you don’t have a right to restrict me in what I want to do, by all means!” Allen snapped at Aljee.

“Oh, Allen, you know that’s not what I’m meaning to do ——–” Aljee insisted.

“I was never here at school to hear your immaculate sermons, Aljee!” Allen said to him icily. “AND I CAME HERE TO YOUR PLACE FOR THIS IRRITATING TRANSFEREE GIRL, NOT FOR YOU!”  He added, roaring with his fist punching the space of air in front to me.

I looked at him with wide, frightened eyes since I really didn’t expect it. Especially his last remark: “I CAME HERE TO YOUR PLACE FOR THIS IRRITATING TRANSFEREE GIRL, NOT FOR YOU.” Wow (or in my bewildered perspective right now, super bad), Alfred Leo Boñuie has deemed me irritating. And even though I don’t usually get mad at bullying matters, I suddenly bit my lower lip hard enough that I could even taste my own blood. And taste my anger. I was angry at him because he was thinking of me – assuming might the better word for it – in the most impossible and wrong manner. I, a simple thirteen-year-old girl who had nothing in her name to boast upon… I, a plain-faced state school graduate… I, a child from a family with no special attainments or publicized status… I will cause the irritation of a young Royal bachelor –the son of a Marquess! Yes, we’re classmates and even seatmates at some point, but my status could never level with his. I know very well that I – a poor weak-hearted girl – would never be a worthy competitor against a boy born with a birthright to privilege, honour and power. So why? Why does he do this? How could he even suggest the most bizarre thing to happen?

While I was thinking this through, I realized that I was already trembling. The fist I had enclosed in my left hand was shaking furiously – so much that I was so sure that it would strike a blow on anybody near me if it was released. I fought the urge adamantly – chewing on my lower lip – because I don’t want to make a scene here.

Allen’s eyes pierced me like I was hit by a thousand stalagmites under a collapsing cave when he glared at me. “You little savage of a girl, tell me… Why did you still come here, despite the undisputable reputation of this school? Saint Bridget Academy has a distinguished circle of elite individuals for its alumni, don’t you know?” I don’t exactly know how he did it, but I felt coldness move from him to me right at that moment. “I bet you went to this prestigious school –to make yourself go to positions you aren’t even worthy of… But sorry, I’m also here to make sure that’ll never happen!”

My temper flared inside me and I bit my lip harder to keep it from showing. I know I must be silent and not let my temper get the best of me – to prevent a very stupid and bad thing from happening here, especially in the situation I am now. I even fought back the tears threatening in my eyes, knowing that if I let them fall, I would only show Allen my weakness – which I hated doing the most, especially in front of my own mother.

Noticing my outright silence, Allen urged me with an imperious tone to speak again.

“So now, why don’t you answer me?”

Somehow, I felt that I must speak a bit of my thoughts to lessen the burden in my heart. Besides, it couldn’t to say things you ought to say during the occasion, right? I took a deep breath then—-

“I’m sorry, Mr. Alfred Leo Boñuie… But I’m the opponent worthy for you…” I slowly said in an even tone.

So why don’t fight me instead? How would you like me to do it? I turned my head to the right and saw, with wide, alarmed eyes, the one girl who could either be one’s most enjoyable best friend or most dangerous enemy. My beloved cousin. Anna Lucy Gayle. “Lulu”.

Lulu raised a perfectly arched black eyebrow and I shuddered at the threat in this gesture. Not that she was intending to do this to me, but I’m more afraid of her being a playful sadist to another one of my bullies.

I shot her a quick warning glare, to let her know that I won’t allow her the liberty to antagonize persons in front of me. It’s too dangerous to have her do so, because once she’s at it, there’s no stopping her to make a person feel very bad in no limits at all. I’d hate to imagine what she‘d do to Allen, especially at this moment, when she already saw me very hurt.

I didn’t look at Allen this time; I focused my eyes on the floor. To him, it was my humility over his superiority, but I actually just wanted him to divert his attention from me. To make him see that I’m not worth any fight.

“Hah! That’s good… You must——–” he laughed with another diatribe in mind.

But…

“THAT IS MORE THAN ENOUGH, ALLEN! LEAVE US NOW! GET BACK TO THE CORNER WHERE YOU BELONG!!!” Saia and the Elricks shrieked at him furiously.

“No! I still have more for her!”

‘No, Allen. This already enough, you see…” I heard one of the G-Ladz whisper to Allen.

“What?! Oh, Ben, are you changing sides now?” Allen raised his voice to a menacing degree.

“No, Allen, but class’ about to start…” Ben answered him calmly.

“Yeah, right… Anyway, I don’t want waste my time on this irritating Transferee Girl…” Allen said glumly.

The sound of heavy feet walking away from us acknowledged the G-Ladz’ departure. But I didn’t relax from my crouching position. Partly, because I still felt the clammy coldness Allen brought to us when he came, and partly, because I realized that I had placed myself in a dangerously unexpected situation with Alfred Leo Boñuie.

So now, I kept thinking it over: WHY HIM? WHY WITH ALLEN?

In my frustration of being unable to find an answer, I unclenched my right fist to reveal my hand then I rubbed it furiously against my temple.

Suddenly, I felt a hand tapping my right shoulder. I still hadn’t sorted out my tangled thoughts so I merely murmured…

“Hm-mm…”

“They’re already gone, Maydee…” It was Lily.

“Yeah, right…” I muttered unenthusiastically.

“But even though they may come back to you, remember that we, your friends will always be at your side no matter what happens.” Saia, Aljee and the Elricks declared in front of me. Lulu’s determined gaze on me was an even different form of this assent.

I felt the tap on my shoulder again and then a sympathetic voice.

“Can you look up to us, Maydee? Please…” it was Saia in her most pitiful moan.

“You know, it’s easier to talk face-to-face with a person,” Isabelle said forthrightly.

“Oh, all right…” I said curtly. I hesitated for a moment then pushed my hair back with both hands.

“You never tie your hair?” Elizabeth asked me incredulously.

“Maydee! Your hair’s so long…” Isabelle said.

“I – I feel more comfortable this way,” I said tersely.

“Oh? In this weather?” Elizabeth fanned herself exaggeratedly.

“It works for me better, especially in my situation…” I told her honestly.

“Oh… it works when you’re trying to avoid trouble,” Lily chuckled at me nervously.

I replied to her with a close-lipped smile.

Lily smiled at me, too, revealing her pearly-white even teeth. Then in a split second, that smile faded and her jaw dropped.

“Lily?” I asked her in concern.

“Oh,” she looked fearful when she answered my question. “Maydee, your lips have gone pale!”

I blanched at her keen observation. She noticed the change! I looked in her eyes then promptly touched my left hand to my lips and took it away quickly. “Oh, this’ nothing, Lily…” I said to her in an undertone, trying to veer them away from this matter.

Saia looked at me in a half-suspicious, half-fearful way and concentrated on my mouth. “It’s become bluish! Why?” she immediately met my eyes, to make sure I would answer her.

“But I’ve always had these lips ————”

“Really? But I saw that they were clearly purplish-red the first time we met. So why did they suddenly turn into blue?” Saia said, narrowing her eyes at me.

“You didn’t let me finish,” I snapped at her. She looked surprised that I had said this to her, but she just nodded at me calmly to continue.

“My lips become a bit blue when I am in tension, stressed or at great pressure,” I explained.

“I see.” Saia nodded her understanding. But I also something in her blue eyes that told me of her questions to me – later. I just nodded to her in return.

“Oh… it seems Allen’s bullying has brought up some problems…” Lily noted sadly.

“Oh, don’t worry, guys, I’m already used to this,” I said, trying to brush their worries away.

“Even if you’ve been bullied before, Maydee, Allen’s style is still bad,” Elizabeth warned me, emphasizing the bad.

“I’ll just handle it, guys…” I told them firmly, though in my mind I felt the opposite of it.

After a few minutes, I sort of fell asleep in my chair, with hands over my face completely. I opened my eyes just in time to see our next teacher step into the room. I immediately saw that she was beautiful. She had pure golden curly hair that cascaded freely down to her back to her waist. The colour, as pure a gold as a stalk of prairie wheat, was a beacon to anyone who happened to glance her way. She was very graceful and elegant in her strides. She held herself like a tall, regal princess, despite being of medium height.

“Who is she, Saia?” Strange, she looks familiar to me.

Before Saia could tell me, the beautiful teacher spoke. “Good morning, chickadees…” W-W-W-H-A-TTTT!!!!! I couldn’t believe my ears for a long minute. Madre cacao, THAT’S MRS. LUCILLA GONZALEZ’ (my seventh grade Mathematics teacher) FAVORITE WORD! HOW I THE WORLD HAD SHE COME ACROSS THAT?! But I wasn’t able to ponder on this oddity any further as she continued. “My full name is Mrs. Ammonihah G. Sinclair. Since I’m going to be your Math teacher of this school year, I’d like you all to call me ‘Ma’am Monic’. I hope that’s well understood.” She nodded to us with a delicate grin.

“First of all, you all will have a Group Activity on our first lesson: SETS. I will assign the three Group Leaders who, in turn will take seven members each – except for one who’ll have six. Okay here…”

The whole class held their breaths as Ma’am Monic took our Official List from her bag.

“For Group 1, Alfred James Boñuie…” most of my classmates cheered upon hearing this. No doubt about it, they agree on Ma’am Monic’s wise choice. As Aljee walked towards Ma’am Monic, he gave us a shy appreciative smile while Saia and the Elricks grinned meaningfully.

“For Group 2, Alfred Leo Boñuie…” Now, I pretended to look for my textbook in my bag. I even bowed my head very low to cover my entire face. Even so, I still felt Allen’s searching gaze at me that I stiffened for a while.

Then afterwards (with my book already on my desk), I looked up to see a tall beautiful girl who had her honey-blonde hair in a single long braid walk in easy, snappy strides to Ma’am Monic. “And for Group 3, Alexandra Popplewell…”

After a while, Ma’am Monic sent Aljee, Allen, and Alex back to their seats. Saia waved a hand to Aljee. “’Gee, no need to worry… You’ve already got all you members here…”

Aljee smiled apologetically at her. “Wait a sec, Saia. I’ll just add one more,” he called a familiar-looking girl to his side. I immediately saw the face that was hard to miss. Almond-shaped grey eyes, finely shaped nose, short wavy brown hair, and lovely red lips curled in a knowing smile.

“Lulu!” she had me in her arms in no less than a second.

“Hiya couz… Great things going on?” Lulu chuckled as she smoothed my hair gently. I breathed in her delightfully warm smell, relieved that I have someone hold me like this in such an emotionally unstable place.

“You know what, Maydee? I’m never going to let anyone hurt you while I’m here… Remember that, my cousin…” Lulu whispered to me. The reminder made me stiffen in her embrace. I pinched her elbow to let her know my disapproval on her action earlier.

“Well, you’re my cousin, of course…” Lulu laughed affectionately as she let go of me but I instinctively knew that she was being unrepentant.

“By the way, guys, I don’t want to sound so negative but this report on SETS…” Saia whined unhappily. “It’s something we’ve never worked on before.”

“Oh, we’ll work it out fine guys…” Aljee said soothingly. “Anyway, this’ just our first lesson so it shouldn’t be that difficult, right?”

No one seemed to agree to him at that, unfortunately. Even when we looked at our textbooks, not one seemed to get the hang of it. Aljee gave us all helpless looks and when he turned to me, I deliberately looked away, feeling like I couldn’t bear his I’m-ready-to-kneel-before-you-right-now look. In truth, I think I have something to help our group. I had attended a Summer Mathematics Class just this year at Mrs. Gonzales’ insistence and I’m pretty sure that we had a lesson there on SETS. So basically, I have all the facts at my fingertips. Only my weak and cowardly heart did not let me speak them to my friends right now. De puta! Baka ne! I told myself as I saw their struggles.

Lulu gave me a stern look – breaking me from my trance – to send me a Mind Message. Don’t let the fear control this time, Maydee. You know how that’s bad for you… Look, we’re all trying our best here so just take your determination, couz, and my courage! Go!

I nodded at her then turned to Aljee. “Aljee, I want to tell you what I know about SETS right now.”

“Shoot.” He gave me an approving grin.

“Alright. Here goes… First, a set is a series of any object – collectively elements – with either definite or infinite number of elements. Most common method to describe a set is the Roster Method – you enclose the elements in brackets…”

The next thing I knew I ended up telling the thing to them myself. I occasionally stammered or stuttered in my words but none of them seemed to mind that, much less to mock them. Elizabeth simply wrote everything I said on our white cartulina as Lily also jot down notes. To our immense luck, we finished twenty minutes before the time.

“Aaahh… Excellent,” Elizabeth murmured, flexing her hands.

“Thank you very much, Maydee… You saved us,” Aljee graciously said, squeezing my hands in his gently.

“Oh, that was nothing compared to your leadership skills,” I rolled my eyes.

“Still, c’est un autre chose…” Aljee chuckled then let go of my hands to go pass our report to Ma’am Monic.

When Aljee came back, he told us that two in our group should report in front about our activity. Immediately, Lily handed me the notes she had written earlier.

“W-What is this, Lily?” I asked her, bewildered.

“It’s you and Aljee who should go, Maydee. You two made our group possible to make a proper Report on our first Mathematics lesson. It’s what right,” Saia told me firmly.

“What do you think, Al?” Elizabeth said to Aljee.

“I, for one thing, won’t take all the credit for a job well done if it’s done with another person.” My face fell as I saw his this-is-my-final-decision look.

“B-But, guys, I’m not good at audiences.” I muttered to them tersely with a shaky grip on my voice. “If I’ll go there, I’ll faint, I swear!”

“Is this true, Lulu?” Isabelle turned to my cousin sharply.

“Unfortunately, yes. But I guess it can be helped,” I spared Lulu a glare and she gave a Mind Message: Grow up, Maydee! You’re not gonna be inside your shell forever!

“How?” Saia asked curiously. I rolled my eyes at her.

A person must give her a sign of making her feel his company willingly; make her walk with a friend…” Lulu simply stated.

“Then it’s already okay!” the Elricks squealed together.

“Go now, you two are ready…” Lily clapped her approval.

Aljee gently took my left hand in his and led me carefully to the front. I then forgot about nervousness because I felt my rambling emotions calm themselves immediately. We even got Green Laurel Bands for our Group in an “excelente job” (according to Ma’am Monic).

Then Ma’am Monic dismissed us because she had other affairs to attend to in her office. At a thundering answer of “YES!!!”, Ma’am Monic gracefully slipped out of the door.

“Let’s go, Maydee…” Aljee gently pulled my hand and led me out of the door.

“Where?” I asked him, confused. My confusion left me when I caught to my sight a tall, white building which looked like it was designed in Classical Style yet given a modern twist too.

“Is this the c-canteen?” I looked at Aljee for an explanation.

“Yep. My treat for our group’s success…”

It was then Lulu took my hand. “Bene ya, mi sobrina…” We followed Aljee and the others to a table by the window.

While Aljee went to order our snacks, I saw at the table to our right familiar faces waving enthusiastically to me. As Lulu glanced over my shoulder to look at them too, I realized that they were our classmates and Lulu’s friends.

One by one, they introduced themselves to me,

“Bernard Hitchcock!” the brown-haired boy with bright golden eyes started.

“Justin Finchfletcher!” the boy with curly dark hair said.

“Melanie Jane Sanders…”

“Andrea Danice Brenham…”

“Ann Karenina Tan…”

“Helen Callahan…”

“Rose Townsend…”

“Enna Collins…”

“Kenneth Robertson…”

“Thanks, guys, it’s definitely a pleasure to meet you…” I smiled at them shyly.

“Same here, Maydee…” Karen, the other chubby girl besides Melanie, said.

“So is it true, Maydee? That you’re related to Jonathan Carlos Santiago?” Bernard asked me, excitedly curious.

“Yes, he’s my elder brother…” I nodded to him. “Why do you ask?” I added, wondering of his hungry I–want–to–know–more face expression.

“Well, you see, Maydee… I’m a sportswriter, and ever since I started here, I already became fascinated of your brother, Jonathan…” Bernard explained. “He’s cool with his humility…”

“Yeah, that’s Kuya Jun…” I smiled, reminiscing our happy memories.

“What an honour it would be if he’ll go here!” Bernard exclaimed in awe.

Lulu chuckled loudly. “Of course, Bern! He’ll come to SBA to visit his sister and his cousin!”

“Oh, who?” Justin asked good-naturedly.

Lulu looked affronted at him. “Golly, Justin! I am a Santiago! My mother’s Maria Lucia Santiago – Gayle! The second sister of Maydee and Kuya Jun’s father, Miguel Carlos Santiago! Therefore, I have a right as Kuya Jun’s cousin.”

All the guys cringed from the death glare Lulu’s giving Justin. I don’t blame them. Lulu gave them a Mind Message, though none of us could hear it except me. Insult me again about my family, and I’d no longer care if you’re my friend or foe. I’ll just hit you!

“Whew, my apologies, Lou… I forgot about it,” Bernard then apologized for his behaviour.

Then they started cracking up all kinds of jokes that made me – who was always careful to keep her emotions in check – go LOL with them. I was so shocked that they were being friendly enough with me to make me feel somewhat comfortable with them –even though I’m a wretched girl inside. Lulu looked at me wryly and I smiled at her. Thanks for introducing your pals to me, Lu. You still keep that serious vow to ‘support me with everything you have and every living breath in your body to ensure my safety and well-being’.

Lulu winked at me thoughtfully. Cousin, an oath is an oath. Even if it’s made a thousand years, as long as I’m alive, I’ll still keep it. Besides, I don’t break my promises – especially not to you, my beloved Maydee…

“Aw, Lulu, you’re pulling at my heartstrings…”

“My favourite cousin’s too sensitive… that’s why she needs protection…”

We broke off our links as Aljee returned with the food. He treated us all to Turkish delight. Actually, it’s actually funny how he had decided for that.

The moment we got settled in a table, I was already starting to take my Purple Card from my bag for my snack but seeing the Blue Card in Aljee’s hand, I decided to leave my Purple Card in my bag.

However, someone already noticed it. “Maydee, is that a Purple Card?” Elizabeth asked me curiously.

“A-Ah, y-yes…” I stammered anxiously as she studied me and my Purple Card with her inquisitive cerulean gaze. “I–I’m a scholar, y-you see…”

“That’s remarkable!” Lily smiled at me endearingly. “That makes you in one league with Ma’am Heidi and Ma’am Monic, especially with Ma’am Monic ‘cause she’s the only one in the Teachers’ Faculty to have three major subjects of specialization – Mathematics, Physics, and English… They were renowned SBA scholars in their time, you know…”

“Wow, t-that’s amazing!” I cried incredulously to her.

“Yeah, so that proves you’re amazing, too, Maydee, doesn’t it?” Elizabeth told me logically.

I bowed my head very low to hide the dark blush in my cheeks at that.

A few minutes later, on the choices for our food, I was the first one Aljee asked.

“What do you want to eat as a snack, Maydee?”

“Well, I’m fine with what others would eat.” I told him truthfully.

“No, it’s got to be your own choice.” He insisted.

“I go with Lulu’s food…” I looked at Lulu for assistance and she nodded at me.

“Honestly, Maydee, what do you want?” Aljee asked me again.

“Why are you asking me that, Aljee?” I do not want to be impolite but I just can’t see Aljee’s reason for this. It’s too thick-headed. I stared at him incredulously. Heck, when had I become that important to him like this?

“Please, Maydee —-”

“Oh, Aljee, don’t push that issue of reward food to my cousin anymore. She won’t tell what she wants to receive because she’s too glum about gifts.” Lulu said with a long exasperated sigh. “But if you really want to do it, better get her a basketful of Turkish delight instead. She’s such a glutton for that,” she quipped, winking at me mischievously.

“Oh, spare me, Lulu…” I groaned in protest to her revelations.

Now, when he really gave a whole basket, my face went very red. “Oh, Aljee… this is absolutely unnecessary…”

Aljee wasn’t who replied to me – he was also blushing at something that I can’t put my finger on – but Lily.

“You’ve got to strengthen yourself so that the G-Ladz would not be able to hurt you, Maydee.” Oh, Lily, even if I stuff my body with a thousand mountains of meat, they could never erase the fear and insecurity that attacks my weak heart very agonizingly every time.

All of a sudden, I felt a strong blast of frosty wind against me. My hairs pricked unpleasantly at the end and I couldn’t keep myself from shuddering. Brisk yet deafening footsteps stopped in front of me in an eerie manner. Resisting all the urge to look down, I fisted my hands at my lap and held my chin up as I looked up to see the face of a beautiful, merciless angel.

However, unlike the strong, imperious embodiment I met earlier, this one was like seeing a boy who had a very grave look that strangely made him look human. His expression was that he felt for one or two of us but can’t just say this feeling aloud in front of others. My thoughts became more incoherent and hard to understand as I tried to find a reason for this absurdity. Meanwhile, Lulu just snorted at Allen in disgust.

“Saia…” I was struck by surprise at hearing his throaty apologetic voice. But I didn’t want to risk being caught observing him so I just felt the emotions in his words, whilst pretending to bury my nose in my John Grisham book. “I came to apologize. To you, Saia. Because I failed to recognize the gift you put in my hands this morning. Yes, I’m now grateful for this book —-” I caught my breath at the back of my throat as I saw him take the book ,which Saia had thrown upon his head not long ago, from his vest ——“because I can now give my sister Nadeé the thing that she needs. This Chinese book, Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang by Duan Chengshi, is what she has always looked for at school. … We’ve never found it in bookstores, actually…”

“Of course, we’re an old Chinese family and that book’s been already in our family for ages. It’s just okay for Achi Nadeé to have it,” Saia laughed at him – not scornfully but understandingly – and her blue eyes brimmed with compassion and forgiveness.

“So thank you, Saia, for this… And I’m sorry for the thing I did earlier…” Allen bowed to Saia then turned his back to us.

“Oh, so you’re taking your leave already…?” Lulu scorned him with a high cold singsong voice that made my skin crawl. “When there’s still another girl who you should apologize to? Here in this table!”

“I have already done what I came here for. There’s no need for me to do more…” Allen told her in a frighteningly flat tone. He still didn’t look at me.

He then turned on his heel and strode away with eloquent grace. His friends followed suit.

As they were leaving, Lulu deliberately stood up and shouted, “NO, ALLEN! YOU MUST APOLOGIZE TO MY COUSIN, MAYDEE! Sin vergüenza!” Aljee restrained her fearfully with a firm grip on her shoulders. And Elizabeth helped to thrust her back to her seat properly.

“Lulu, calm down. They’re not worth it…” Karen reminded her.

“Right…”

“So, Lulu———-” the others then talked to Lulu about their new ‘trip’.

While they had their conversation, I continued to read my book.

After a few minutes, I heard Aljee’s voice.

“Maydee?”

“Hmm?” I said without taking the book out of my face.

“Are you reading a John Grisham?”

“Yes…”

“Is it ‘The Confession’?”

At this, the book just fell into the floor from my lap. It fell with a loud thud that startled even Lulu and her companions.

“What is it, Maydee?” Lulu asked in concern.

“Oh, it’s nothing, Lulu, promise…” I profusely muttered to her, while bending low to pick up my book.

“Well, it’s about time you drop that book, gal,” she chuckled at me.

“You’re being silly, Lulu…” I laughed softly, shaking my head. Suddenly I stopped in my chuckles when I felt something warm on my left hand.

The feeling sent both chills and excitement in my spine. I turned my head to see what it was.

“Oh!” I yelped, very startled to see Aljee with his right hand relaxed on my own. He seemed to pick up my book in the same manner that I was trying to.

“Sorry, I was just trying to help you…” he immediately took away his hand from mine.

Behind us came clearing throats with some “ahem”.

I blushed to the roots of my hair at that.

“Guys…” Aljee hissed at them as he helped me to my feet.

“Oh, just remember, Aljee…” Lulu met Aljee’s anxious sapphire-blue eyes with her own vigilant brown ones. “Maydee’s my most beloved cousin…”

“Hah! Most beloved? Last May, you told me Juvie was the one you liked most in our family,” I chuckled at her, as loud as I could muster to keep her from this awkward situation.

Lulu wasn’t convinced at my clever ploy. Well, I just want him to be careful when he’s with you. She then winked at me and gave a you-know-what-I’m-talking-about-here sad smile before going back to her friends’ conversation.

Lulu! I rolled my eyes at her notion, knowing very well that what’s going on in her mind about me and Aljee will never happen in a million ages. Just as I was planning to bury my nose in my book again, Aljee casually took it from me with an unusual grin.

“Hey,” I turned to him, startled.

“I’d read that book last summer, and I cried due to its tragic ending…” He said, his sapphire-blue eyes turning misty.

“Well, that’s just life. Its natural way, I mean,” I said to him with a none-too-casual shrug. “Whether you’re going to have a happy ending or tragic demise, we just have to accept that. If you don’t accept things the way they are, it’ll only make your life harder…

“You can’t know your own life’s end at this point while you’re still living, can you? It’s absolutely impossible!” Aljee said with a suspicious edge to his voice.

“To some people, it has already been revealed to them by God…” I muttered primly.

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set in his own authority,” Aljee countered.

“When Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ ” I muttered back calmly.

I deliberately avoided Aljee’s seeking gaze for I felt like he was gauging my reactions. I was so afraid that he would see through me and find out my secret. That set my poor heart beating faster than before. To relieve myself of my anxiousness, I turned to Saia. “Guys, can we go back to the room now?”

“Alright, let’s go…” she agreed with me gladly.

“Same place this lunch?” Lily asked.

“YEAH!” we chorused, already on our feet.

As we went back to the room, I saw Deborah and her girl friends fix a glare on me and all the girls with me glare at her as well.

“Stupid witches,” Lulu snarled quietly.

“Oh, don’t you worry, Maydee… we won’t them get the better of you. It’s about time they find out Saint Bridget Academy isn’t a place to bully people,” Alex muttered fiercely with some expletives under her breath.

“Alex…” I said breathlessly, too much emotion flowing from my heart.

“You’re our friend, Maydee…” she said, touching her hand to my left cheek. I smiled at her but inside, I was sad. She reminded me of my sister, who I hadn’t seen for a long time.

“And don’t think that we’re just befriending you because of your awesome sporty brother. Of course that’s not our reason,” Bernard said.

“If that would just be our reason to be plastic or pretentious people,” Justin shook his head. “We’d rather not do it, Maydee… It would absolutely make us worse than Allen and Deborah…”

“The thirteen of us don’t just want a girl who shies away from spotlight or even one who wants it…” Helen reassured me. “For we know life is a stage of competitive actors and actresses –all with qualities that could appeal to the audience for some time… some excellent, some so-sos, and others rotten…”

“Aw, that’s our Juliet…” Lulu teased her.

Helen didn’t mind her and just continued. “I mentioned only the excellent, the so-sos, and rotten, Maydee, because those with good talents but undesirable attitudes are fit to be called rotten. Like Deborah.”

“Right, right…” the others quickly agreed with her.

“I think that girls who either shy away from or grab the spotlight have their reasons to do so. I may not know your reason, but it’s okay,” Helen continued, beaming a smile at me. “Because I think you’ll be the best, best friend we could ever have! You’re the altruist I’m looking for!”

“Oh, well, Helen, she’s an altruist!” Lulu chuckled. But her secret thoughts were – Too much of an altruist that it kills her every day. She cares about others much more than herself too much.

“Meredith was almost one but she lacked something –” Helen said.

“What did she lack, Helen?” in my curiosity, I interrupted her.

“Freedom.” Helen sighed heavily.

“Like I told you at English class, Maydee, Mrs. Olvinne was always the one making decisions for her daughter.” Saia explained. “She was the one who insisted that Meredith must study here at SBA even though the latter wanted to be in Eton, with her friends. She’s the only child, you see…”

“Then here at school, she’s opinionated – though not as bad as Deborah – and she tried to assert herself often. But it didn’t work out, really. She was very indecisive, often ending in rash actions. Being altruistic could have saved her…”

No, Helen, it would’ve done worse to her, just like what happened to me.

At lunch, we ate some very delicious cream soup. I slurped the soup contentedly.

Then a Kitchen Attendant came to us asking about our Second Course.

“Yorkshire Pudding, full-circle…” Aljee replied.

“And Bakewell Pudding, full-circle, too…” Alex added.

“Okay, sir… your order will be here by six minutes…” the Kitchen Attendant bowed then went back to the kitchen.

“Uhm… guys, what do you mean by ‘full-circle’?” I asked, confused of the word.

“Oh, it just means all the occupants in a table will be ordering the same food,” Isabelle said promptly.

“I see.”

When our puddings arrived, I ate them while noticing that most who were passing our table didn’t like me by their looks.

“Bastards…” Lulu hissed.

“Come to think of it, pals… They’re just jealous of our friend!” Bernard laughed.

What?!” I cried in surprise.

“You may not see it this time, but they’ll also go to you when they need to,” Bernard continued, still chuckling.

“Then I won’t let them. I won’t let them use my cousin,” Lulu declared imperiously.

“Thanks, Lou…” I whispered to her.

By the time we arrived at class, the next events went blurring in my mind. Perhaps, it’s because I didn’t want to remember the bad things that happened to me. I sighed.

At seven in the evening, we were sent to our dormitories. I decided to sleep alone in my bed, as did Saia and Lily. Knowing that Deborah will be one of my roommates because we were in the same year, I deliberately chose a place where I’ll be guarded –flanked by my friends. I knew I was being silly but I didn’t care… I just wanted to feel safe at night.

I dumped my bag onto my bedside table then lay my head on the pillow on the bed testily. I wanted to sleep but my mind was buzzing with incoherent thoughts. I changed into a blue long-sleeved blouse and its matching polka dot pajamas. Then I prayed to God and feel asleep, wishing for a dreamless sleep.

Chapter One – Only Time

“Okay, Maydee, you can do this, c’mon…”

I took a deep breath then poked my head into the room. The room was like a soothing form of space, accentuated by its colour. Its walls were painted peach and blue curtains hung over the sturdy jalousie windows. There were twenty writing desks in the room, all with a lovely shade of orange. As I looked for vacant seats, I saw the students in the room already talking enthusiastically with their seatmates. No doubt, they were all discussing happy memories together at school. And they look forward to having that same kind of fun this year. Unlike me. I heaved a sigh then slowly entered the room. Immediately, I heard all the students in buzzing conversations. I was not afraid that they would notice me because I’m adept in being a low-key individual and I’m so dull that they won’t find any reason to give their attention. Then out of the corner of my eye, I saw four handsome boys cross the room in the same time that I did. Fortunately, they didn’t notice me, too.

I caught to my sight just one empty seat at the very back of the room. Perfect. I tiptoed to that chair very quietly and bowed my head very low, letting my long hair cover my face – so that the other students will not notice me. When I reached the desk, I immediately put my bag at the back of the chair and then sank my head onto the desk. I guess it’s better to pretend to sleep here than endure the lively thrill of the whole room, as they almost wanted to share great experiences of summer to each other in every minute of this time. I wouldn’t want anyone to come here and talk to me about that because I’m sure I won’t have a nice story of my life to tell her too. It’s messed up beyond repair, especially since this summer before I went to this school.

After a few minutes, just as I began to doze off, I felt a hand tapping my shoulder gently. I looked up to see a charming petite young girl with warm almond-shaped cerulean eyes and shoulder–length straight blonde hair. Her heart-shaped face made way for all her features to show how beautiful they are.

“Hi…” she said softly.

“Hi,” I answered with the best polite thing I could think of.

“Mind if I sit beside you?” she asked.

“It’s alright for me…” I told her honestly. Strange as it seems, I found a girl whom I could easily join with. I might only wait for the right time to tell her my secrets, one by one. Though the most difficult of them is the one I’m very determined to keep from –except my family – everyone else in this world.

“My name’s Sarah Jean Lee. Nickname’s Saia,” she then said and stretched a dainty white hand to me. “How about you?”

“It’s Belinda Marie Santiago, but please, just call me… Maydee…” I blushed as I took her hand, knowing that she might find that name weird. To my surprise, she simply smiled at me.

“It’s cute, Maydee…”

“Nah, Saia, your name’s better…”

“Heh, I know what you’re thinking there, Maydee. Blood Plus, right? Sorry, but I’m half-Chinese, not Japanese…” she winked at me mischievously.

“Well, I guessed it already from the beginning. I’ve lived enough with Japanese people to know whether a person is one of them or not. And by the way, I’m a mix of three different nationalities. Mama’s British and Papa’s part Filipino and Spanish,” I said these things so casually that it surprised me. I usually don’t do this to people – being so comfortable in telling others about myself. Even my friends back in my childhood did not get as much information as they wanted from me in the course of our six-year friendship. Of course, I’m a very secretive person because of the numerous unspeakably grim things that happened to me ever since I was born. And I’ve only met Saia for not less than two minutes, but she’s already made me welcome in her company. She’s so nice. Her friendliness was already great beyond my standard definition.

“Saint Bridget Academy is a really lovely school, isn’t it? It’s a place where you can’t get enough of anything you ever ask for in your life… What do you think, Maydee?” Saia said to me thoughtfully.

“I think you’re right, Saia. I’ve spent more than a month here already and I still can’t take in the grandness of this institution…” I told her earnestly.

“True, too true… For even if I studied as a Bridgetan since I was a child, it never disappointed me in its surprises in my school life,” Saia chuckled fondly.

I just nodded at her, while in my heart I felt apprehensive of all these surprises that might come my way here in Saint Bridget academy.

“I’ve graduated here in this school last year. As Third Honourable Mention. You? Where did you go to primary school, Maydee?” Aw, she already knew that I wasn’t from here. Well, that wasn’t really hard to guess, I think, considering that I didn’t mingle much with the students – who were all classmates, obviously – here in the room.

“East Central School in Inverness, Scotland…” I replied uneasily to her, feeling some cold prick at my nape.

Not long after that, we heard a boy shout out startlingly. “You heard that, guys… She’s from East Central School…” I looked to my right and saw an achingly handsome bronze-haired boy guffawing in front of his friends. I winced, Wow, things still haven’t changed with me. I shrugged off my fear quickly. Well, it could only get worse anyhow.

“Isn’t that a State school?” the black-haired one said.

“Well, doesn’t she know that this is Saint Bridget Academy, one of the most esteemed schools in English upper crust?” the golden-haired boy, the tallest one among them, stated imperiously. I cringed at the sound of his voice – though it was so beautiful, like a musical tune – because it was so cold. It radiated the chill into the air and I shivered.

I was so relieved when they stopped talking and merely took their books, perusing them casually. I then looked at Saia. “Oh, Maydee, just don’t mind them. They’re simply haughty idiots…” she said with a hint of disgust in her voice.

Haughty idiots? I looked at her, puzzled. I know very well that I saw all the three boys – though they were mean to me – possessed a fine insight and undaunted intelligence, especially the golden-haired boy.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a boy looking identically like that boy. He was occupying the desk to my left. Weird, I think I’m seeing a guy sitting in two places at the same time. Before I ponder on this more carefully, Saia nudged me at the side.

“There’s our teacher, Maydee…”

I turned my head and saw a young woman walk into the room. I was immediately filled with awe by her presence. She was an angelic beauty, tall and lithe in limbs, her dark hair pulled in a formal bun and her green eyes focused, walking with auspicious superiority.

“My full name is Adelaide Marienne Crawford. But I want you to call me ‘Ma’am Heidi’. I will be your adviser and English teacher from now on.” She immediately said as soon as she put her bag on her table. “I am from Kent, but I graduated here at Saint Bridget Academy eight years ago. From that time, I taught at Eton and so precisely, I’ve already some experience in handling the star sections of this institution – which you I-St. Francis absolutely are. As your adviser, I expect you to act as such. I will not tolerate any misdeeds in this class – most especially, bullying – because I believe that all persons must be afforded respect and not one of you has the right to belittle or hurt another without any just reason. Whoever will not abide by these rules of mine will meet their desired punishment to me…

The whole class nodded at her at once, both in fear and awe at what she had just said.

“So now, I want to know about you guys…” Aw, she meant us introducing ourselves. Of all the bad luck, I thought. Being in front of other people –  let alone to speak to them – was never fun and great for me. I’m nervous around people and it doesn’t help if someone in the crowd gets leery over me. That would be, oftentimes, the one who would pick on me the most during the school year. He or she listens to my speech long enough to know how to bully me in the most hurtful way possible.

“Okay, let’s start… Alfred James Boñuie…” A tall golden-haired boy – my new bully’s look-alike – stood up from my left and sauntered to the front to be beside Ma’am Heidi.

“Good morning, everyone…” I was shocked to find that even their voices sounded very the same as well – the only off-note was my bully’s was cold, like a hundred degrees down zero while this boy had a very warm and pleasant take in his own. “I am Alfred James Boñuie. My parents are Marquis Alexandre Juliot Boñuie and Marchioness Elizabeth Roselaw Boñuie of Inverness. I have two siblings – an elder sister named Bernadette and my twin brother is Allen…” He pointed his hand to the golden-haired boy to my right. I now realized why they’re so similar to each other in looks – because they are identical twins. “Our sister Bernadette is currently at St. Andrews’ College in her second year in Accounting. So, about my academics, I graduated last year at this school as Valedictorian with a few honours on my back…”

Saia looked like she wanted to laugh at that. Her blue eyes crinkled with mirth and her lips were pulled up in a playful smirk. She shook her head at the golden-haired boy.

“Saia…” I reproached her.

“Oh… HA-HA-HA-HA!!!” She deliberately burst in chuckles.

I flinched at her disapprovingly. How could she laugh at some accomplishment Alfred James Boñuie had just told us? By all that’s fatal, being a valedictorian isn’t that that simple to achieve! What on earth is she thinking that she does a laugh at the blonde boy?

“Oh, sorry for that, Maydee… You know I just can’t believe Aljee still saying those kinds of things to the class…” Saia apologized to me profusely.

‘What do you mean?” I looked at her, puzzled, as she gazed at the boy with unspeakable awe in her shining blue eyes.

“Aljee’s so down to earth, so humble, Maydee… That he never bothers to mention that he won the High Distinction Award in ICAS last year… And that he’s one of only two topnotchers of the Science Olympiad Quiz International…” Saia laughed again, now a low rumble.

“Really? He’s the one, Saia?!” I literally squealed in surprise at what she had just said. Wow! I’ve heard about the boy who single-handedly got the highest rank in the most engagingly difficult English competition in the whole world – ICAS. I even adored him as an idol and all, but I never that he would be my classmate. Not even in my dreams. (No, don’t mistake my words here; it’s just that I’m a born pessimist who knows nothing good would ever come out of her life.)

“Yes, of course. The one and only.” Saia said to me matter-of-factly.

Before I say something along the lines of “that’s great”, I spared Aljee’s brother a fleeting glance then turned back to Saia. “What about Allen?” I asked in a low voice.

“Well, Allen’s next after Aljee – the Salutatorian – but he wasn’t so happy about that, mind you… He wanted so much to best Aljee at everything, Science, Math, English, History, even gruelling P.E. … He always wants to prove himself, the efforts so much that it already makes me sick,” Saia sighed.

“But why does he have to do that? It’s not like he’s making up for something bad…” Even though he had hurt me by his first bullying act right at this morning, I couldn’t keep having the feeling of sympathy and concern for him. No one but me should have suffered to a hard life, moping for uncommitted sin.

I then looked at Saia for a good explanation to this. The pain-stricken look on her face was so heart wrenching that it reminded me of my darkest and most devastating secret. “Sorry, Maydee, can’t tell you about it for now… He’ll kill me, he’ll kill me for it…”

When I looked in front again, it was now Allen who was talking. Dios mío, he looked so haughty handsome and dangerous. Dangerous. I clutched my heart in my sleeve secretly and took small breaths. Seriously, Maydee, he’s not going to notice you anymore. You’re a dull goner to him. No need to be so afraid.

To avoid looking at him any further, I got a book from my bag and read it. Not long after that, I felt bored and turned to listen to the introductions once more. Fortunately, it wasn’t Allen anymore, but his black-haired friend.

“…. My name’s Go ling Ho. I have a younger sister named Go Lin Hye. She’s in Seoul right now for her nursery. Go So Kyu and Go Kyun Joo are my parents; my mom’s a Linguist of the British Royal Court while my dad’s the Korean Ambassador to United Kingdom…”

Great. I’m never going to belong here with this sort of achingly rich people. (No offense, but I loved my family. I appreciate our simple way of life. I feel that I couldn’t want any more from that, because I hadn’t deserved it even at my birth.) How am I exactly supposed to get along with them? I sighed.

“…. For my hobbies, I like reading books, fencing, music and playing sports like soccer. And I hang out with my friends, no girlfriend…”

At that, many girls in and out of our room cooed expectantly. Looking out the window, I saw fifty something girls outside of our room, craning their necks to get a peek inside. I‘ve seen those eager looks and heard those kind of patronizing noises before, I groaned sickeningly. Because of Kuya Jun. He was a handsome excellent swimmer and many seemed to crush on him – though he has never been interested in a girl other than the one he met in his last year in high school.

I definitely have no doubt that the cooing girls were hitting on Allen and his friends. Most of our other classmates, the males especially, didn’t mind this at all – in fact, they just snickered and grinned at themselves. But more or less, they kept their conversations low and to themselves only like they don’t want Allen’s gang to know.

Ma’am Heidi definitely didn’t like this disgusting noise at all. She glared at Allen, Aljee, Ling and the brown-haired boy beside Allen seething then strode off to the door. She walked in snappy yet elegantly graceful strides that the girls could only look at her in awe. She flowed sinuously in front of the girls at our door and gave them a disdainful look. “Girls, don’t you have your classes right now?”

Ma’am Heidi’s beautiful voice was velvet and she never raised it but the girls still felt the soft tone of her voice was a deeper threat than a roar. “Y-Yes, Ma’am.” They said meekly.

“Then you should be there right now. I suppose you wouldn’t want detention on the first day of school, right?”

“N-No, Ma’am…” the girls, horrified, gasped at the same time.

“So if you want to go date with the G-Ladz, don’t ogle them during class, especially in my class. Wait for them after school hours, if you want, but you’re interrupting my first meeting with my advisory class. Go.” The girls didn’t need another order for they immediately turned their backs and scattered in many different directions – to go to their own rooms obviously.

Ma’am Heidi stayed to see them off then went back to her place in the room. “Alright, let’s continue with the introductions. Ling…” she turned to him with a knowing look and he nodded at her obediently.

“I graduated as Fifth Honourable Mention in our Eight Year. Reasonably enough, I got some awards just like Aljee, Allen and Ben did. I got Proficiency Awards in Art, Music, English, History and Foreign Language, as well as two Leadership Awards for being a consistent member of the Student Council and holding the position of Editor-in-Chief of the Saint Bridget Academy school publication, The Bridgetan’s Harbinger for three consecutive successful years. With this in regard, I will do my best to stay in the Honours’ List even in the face of pressure. I reckon I’ll just continue my brave streak in my studies…”

While Ling was speaking to the class, I nudged Saia at the side.

Saia grinned at me slyly.

“The G-Ladz?” I asked her curiously.

“They are Allen, Aljee, Ben, and Ling… The most powerful guys in this school, even though they’ve only started secondary school.” Saia said promptly.

“W-Wait… Are you telling me that Alfred James Boñuie – as in Aljee – is part of the bully gang?” I gasped incredulously. It can’t be! That kind golden-haired boy with the handsome angelic face and serene aura is a bully? I couldn’t even force my mind to imagine it. No, I couldn’t.

“Maydee, don’t jump to conclusions immediately, please. The G-Ladz is not really a bullying force; it’s only Allen who’s using it as one.” Saia explained. “In fact, it is a peace and order council created by Sister Mary Lodowska, our High School Director, in our fifth grade. Sister Lodowska appointed Aljee, Allen, Ben, and Ling as members of this group because she thought the boys would be able to lead the school, especially in coordination of the Student Council. And mind you, they are even more formidable than our seniors…”

All this information left me speechless for quite a while. When I finally got back my strength, I asked her. “What happened to the group to have them go bad ways?”

“Allen became their leader, not Aljee.”

“Why?”

“Aljee gave the position to his brother.” Saia sighed.

“That’s a shame…” I murmured softly. If Aljee was the leader of the G-Ladz, there would not be a bullying group, but a caring understanding council for peace and discipline in Saint Bridget Academy.

“Oh, but don’t think the G-ladz are bad and all. No, they’re not, Maydee…” Saia grinned at me exuberantly. “Well, I guess Allen’s that too much of a killjoy to join them in their fun.”

“What do you mean by fun?” I quickly got apprehensive at the sound of that word.

“Gifting sprees, ‘Dee… Aljee, Ben and Ling are always surprising Bridgetans in their lockers, leaving knickknacks that are often useful and very beautiful.” Saia giggled like a child. “Things that are in their favourite colours: Aljee – blue, Ben – yellow, and Ling – green. They’re sweet…”

“That’s… awesome,” I smiled at her, feeling half-glad, half-afraid at what I had just heard. “But what about Allen? Does he know? About these sprees?” I asked in an undertone, not wanting to attract Allen’s attention.

“Nah – of course not, Maydee…He’s not happy when he hears stories about his twin, whether it’s good or bad,” Saia chuckled her statement quietly like it was the funniest joke in the universe.

“Just like what we’re doing now?” I murmured shakily, my heart pounding.

“Yep.”

“You’re ——” Suddenly, I felt sharp pain like a lance through the side of my heart. I bit down a gasp and ducked under the desk. This is so not good, I told myself, having two contrasting feelings is bad for me. And I’ll have hell in my body just for experiencing both fear and gladness at the same time earlier. I took a deep breath then calmed myself. Thankfully, Saia had her attention elsewhere to notice my sick fit. She was busy looking at Aljee very adoringly. Lucky Saia, she’s going to have the love of her life for the rest of her life… They’re both fortunate to be born normal and so they’d normally end up together.

Not long after that, my turn to introduce myself came. Saia squeezed my right hand in encouragement before I went to the front. “You’ll be fine, Maydee. This will all be all right…”

How I wish, Saia, that your words will be true… Oh, how I wish…

“Good morning, everyone. My full name is Belinda Marie M. Santiago.” I gave Ma’am Heidi and my classmates a curt bow and went on. “You may just call me Maydee. I graduated as salutatorian from East Central School of Inverness last school year. I live in Del Claro Village with my family. My mother is Vivien Ruth M. Santiago, a music teacher in Saint Luke’s Conservatory and my father is Miguel Carlos S. Santiago, a Professor of Filipino and Spanish in Mary’s Integrated School.  I have an older brother named Jonathan Carlos Santiago and a younger sister named Julie Vera Santiago. Kuya Jun is in his sophomore year at St. Andrew’s College, while Juvie’s a fourth year student of East Central School. Here, I am a full-pledged scholar. That’s all I can tell you for now… Thanks for listening…”

I already did my best and it was already up to them as to how they were going to use the knowledge on me. Yes, I’m prepared for possibilities… And I feel very strongly that they are so likely to happen to me.

I was pleased when Ma’am Heidi dismissed us already. Great, I’d have time to catch up on my sleep. As I was going back to my seat, I suddenly bumped against another person. I looked up to see who it was and my jaw dropped.

The one whom I bumped against was without a doubt one of the most beautiful and dangerous persons in this school. It was a haughty kind of beauty. She was tall, slim and her long straight honey-blonde hair swayed to her shoulders very gracefully. But her blue eyes were cold like ice to me. I gulped.

“Er, I’m sorry, Miss —-” I tried to apologize at once, knowing that I had offended her.

But her words cut me like a knife.

“Next time, look before you leap, Maydee…” she glared at me in such an icy manner that I shivered. Then she bumped my shoulder, almost knocking me down.

In all my shock and fear, I staggered to my seat, shivering.

“Who’s that girl, Saia?” I asked Saia nervously.

“Deborah Connor of the Connor Industries.” I was afraid by the look of dark hatred on her face.

“S-She seemed angry and loathsome of me…” I said shakily.

“That’s how she acts with someone she thinks will be her opponent in school,” Saia explained with a hard edge to her voice.

“B-But I didn’t want it to be like that…” I told her frantically. How could she see as an enemy or a competitor when we’ve only just met? If it’s about the honours system, I can’t let her feel like I’m fighting against her. No, it shouldn’t be like that. I just want to be in the Top Ten and maintain my scholarship. Besides, she must not think that I will take her crown from her.

“Of course, no one wanted it to be – especially not my best friend, Mereé.” Saia swallowed, and I could the tears forming in her eyes.

“What happened?” Even before I even asked the question, I already knew the answer to it. Because I had felt the same thing too.

“Deborah got angry at Meredith Olvinne for getting the third honours at fifth grade.” Saia explained and I know by the pain in her eyes that she was hurting just by telling this story to me.  Urgh, I hate myself. We have been friends for just an hour now and I’m already making her weep her heart out very painfully? What more if she learns of my devastating secret? Oh God, I don’t even what to think about that now. If there’s someone here who deserves to be in pain, it has to be me. Me alone.

“So she put her into all humiliating acts you couldn’t imagine them. All of her girl friends from our class, even the older students and the high schoolers… they tortured her to death by their pranks. They even hurt me and our friends just to make Mereé suffer more each day. And what’s horrible, she didn’t even last a year with us. When her mother knew about what had happened to her here, she literally dragged her off our dormitory and into her car. Meredith was crying that day, so much because she didn’t want to leave her friends. But she didn’t have a choice. In January, she was already at Saint Paul’s College.”

“I’m sorry, Saia… I made you tell something that’s personal,” I said mournfully. I know exactly how hard it is say a personal thing aloud because I have a precious secret I could never tell to anybody – other than my family – even if I love them.

“No, it’s okay, Maydee… I really wanted to tell you the story so that you wouldn’t end up like Meredith Olvinne. I can’t lose another best friend.” Saia quickly wiped her tears away. “Promise you won’t transfer to another school, whatever Deborah throws at you… Promise me that you’ll never leave me, my friend.”

“I won’t transfer from SBA, pinky swear, Saia…” I reassured her.

Of course, I won’t leave this school for another because I promised Mama I would really be good here. I still remember the day I got the letter of scholarship acceptance.

June 18, 2009, 9:00 AM

“Ate Maydee, you got it! You got the scholarship!!!” Juvie, my sister squealed as she held the blue envelope high in the air.

“Congratulations, mi hermana…” Kuya Jun wrapped his arms around me and then he swung me around in a circle very gently.

“Kuya Jun! Oh – huh – huh – Hah!” I couldn’t stop myself from laughing.

Until I heard Mama’s voice.

“Jonathan, put your sister down now.”

“Si, Ma.” Kuya Jun put on my feet very carefully and just settled for holding my hand.

“Maydee, come here.” I let go of Kuya Jun and slowly sauntered to Mama. She immediately hugged me very tight. “I’m proud of you, my baby…”

Then she let go and knelt on me on one knee before me. She pulled me to the same position as well.

“Ma?” I looked at her russet brown eyes, confused.

“Maydee, now you’ve been given an opportunity. An opportunity to be in one of the best things you could ever have in your life. Once you already have it, you should never let it go. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, Mama…”

“This is very important for our family, Maydee. No matter what happens, you should not leave that school. You must do your best to stay there, to be one of the elite. If you do depart from Saint Bridget Academy, it will bring—–“

“Disgrace to our family, I know,” I said. “And I’m going to hold to my promise, Mama; I will follow your orders… I will hold on to that school because I chose to go there. So I don’t think I’ll be wanting to leave that place.”

“Maydee…” Mama’s face expressions softened and she touched my cheeks. “Be brave there, for all of us, mija…”

“And if anyone tries to bully there in those privies, don’t worry, you’ve got my back.” Kuya Jun said proudly. “I won’t let anyone hurt you…”

“Then you can have fun and all the love in the world there,” Juvie grinned at me, displaying cute dimples. Oh, I’ll definitely miss my sister when I get there.

I smirked at her, as the song ‘All The Love in the World’ by the Corrs resounded from our radio.

The two of sang along together.

Don’t wanna wake up alone anymore
Still believing you’ll walk through my door
All I need is to know it’s for sure
Then I’ll give… all the love in the world

Love’s for a lifetime not for a moment
So how could I throw it away
Yeah I’m only human
And nights grow colder
With no-one to love me that way
Yeah I need someone who really sees me…

My trance was broken by Saia tapping my shoulder.

“Uhm, Maydee…” she looked at me in concern.

“Just reminiscing memories ‘bout my family, Saia…” I sighed, wiping a tear from my cheek.

“I understand,” Saia squeezed my hands in hers tenderly.

I’m sorry, Saia. I promise I won’t transfer to another school, but I can’t promise I won’t leave me. Because I will eventually do that. Sooner than you think of it.

“By the way, Maydee, let me introduce you to my friends…” Saia tugged my sleeve and made me face to the desk in front of us.

There the three most beautiful triplets that I have ever seen in my entire life waved their hands at me. They had long silvery-blonde hair that was over the elbows and eyes as blue as the eastern sky in its bluest blue. The nearest one to me extended her left hand to me with a smile.

“Hi, Maydee… I’m Elizabeth Elrick, and these are my sisters, Isabelle and Lily…”

“Elizabeth’s the eldest, while I’m the middle child…” Isabelle said, giggling.

“And I’m the baby of the family,” Lily smiled at me sweetly. I liked her; she has a soothing aura that makes me really comfortable. “Nice to meet you, Maydee…”

“Nice to meet you, gals…” I nodded at them.

Then suddenly, I felt a hand brushing over mine in a most gentle manner and then giving a sweet squeeze. Warmth spread over me in that simple gesture.

I looked up and my jaw dropped. It was Alfred James Boñuie. It was really shocking to see him this up close. And so unbelievable. His beauty was so overwhelming. He had vibrant, sun-streaked golden hair and blue eyes that sparkled like sapphires fresh from the hearth. His aquiline nose was a perfect work of art. And his beautiful perfectly shaped lips were curled in a serene smile. It was so beautiful that I even found it hard to believe it was for me.

“Hey.” If I was so dazzled by his appearance, I was feeling more than that when I heard his voice. It was musically beautiful and unlike any other voice in the world.

“Belinda Marie Morgan Santiago, right?”

“Yes…You may call me —” I shook my head at the notion. “Ah! Never mind, it’s too embarrassingly weird, really…”

He unexpected gave me a howl of laughter. “But, Maydee, that’s not even half as funny as my nickname!”

“What do you mean?” I asked him in confusion.

“Aljee… sounds like algae,” he said slowly and clearly.

“As in the water greens…” Isabelle chuckled.

“Yah, yah, that’s right…” Aljee laughed at her too. Then he turned with his blue eyes turning mellow. “D’you still think that your name’s funny?”

“Well, kinda. But it’s mine, and that’s the way I like it,” I shrugged.

“By the way, Maydee… I’m sorry for what my twin brother did to you a while ago…” Aljee puckered his lips in a sad frown.

“It’s not like —” I tried to stop him from apologizing but the girls beat me to it.

“Oh, don’t do that! You’re again taking the blame from your blameworthy brother and it’s not right!” Elizabeth grumbled.

“Aljee, Allen’s already a teen as you are. So he has to take on the responsibilities, not you!” Saia said fiercely.

“Saia… You know how my brother is,” Aljee said to her in a begging voice.

That shut her up.

I decided to change the subject for everyone’s relief. “So, you’re all friends?” I looked from one cute face to another.

“No, Maydee…” Saia said sternly.

“Huh, but why?” I was really confused.

“Because we’re all friends…” Aljee put my pale white cold hand in his and brought it atop Saia’s.

“Really?” I asked him incredulously.

“Yes, well, if you’d let me, Maydee…” Aljee looked up at me, his eyes almost pleading.

My breath hitched. Someone was really asking to be my friend – not just someone, it was Alfred James Boñuie! “Yes…”

“And thank you for being fast friends with me; it’s really a great thing to me…’ I told them honestly.

“No problem, Maydee…” Lily smiled.

“She’s right, you’re likable anyhow…” Isabelle said sincerely.

“I think you five are the likable ones, not me…” they frowned and I continued with a compliment. “Especially Saia and Lily…”

“Typical of them. They’re the friendliest students in Saint Bridget Academy, and I can vouch for them in our batch since elementary…” Aljee said.

Prologue

One Palm Sunday, before Mass, I was simply sitting in my bed, meditating on the feel of the start of a very sacred time of the year in the air. The Holy Week, as was the tradition and doctrine of my Roman Catholic Faith. I thought about my life – my heart hanging on a thread, my everyday plagued with tests that never seemed to end, my family still staying apprehensive yet strong with me all the time. I subconsciously held my left chest – where the doctors said my heart was – with a mysterious desire for something that I could not yet put a sense into, let alone a finger. Then while I was thinking all of these things, I suddenly had the strange urge to look for my collection of Clive Staples Lewis’ works. Extraordinarily enough, as soon as I took hold of my little hard-bound book and leafed through its well dog-eared pages (of which it is my entire fault for my crazy habit with books), I was drawn to this sermon.

The Weight of Glory

By C.S. Lewis

Preached originally as a sermon in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942: published in THEOLOGY, November, 1941, and by the S.P.C.K, 1942

As I read, I was dearly affected by a particular part which pulled at my heartstrings in a special kind of tenderness.

In speaking of this desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now, I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both. We cannot tell it because it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience. We cannot hide it because our experience is constantly suggesting it, and we betray ourselves like lovers at the mention of a name. Our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter.

Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.

These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them.

And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.

……

Do what they will, then, we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy. But is there any reason to suppose that reality offers any satisfaction to it? “Nor does the being hungry prove that we have bread.” But I think it may be urged that this misses the point. A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.

In the middle of my reading, Mama unexpectedly went to my bedroom. Fortunately, she knocked on the door first, so as not to startle me. I shouted out “Espera un rato…!” and replaced the book in the bookshelf then opened for Mama. She asked me if I was alright then told me to ready myself for the Mass.

Fifteen minutes later, I appeared before her in our living room in my time-honoured white long-sleeved dress. Mama smiled and nodded at me, approving of my attire very well. It was the dress she herself gave me on my birthday – my thirteenth, as the tradition of my mother’s family tells so. Then she made me sit on the chair and went to work with my hair. She combed, twisted and entwined the bouncing curly locks of my long brown hair into a chignon at the nape of my neck.

After that was done, my family had a light breakfast then went out to hear Mass.

After the Mass, I was inspired by the very uplifting homily given by the presiding celebrant, Father Jaime San Jose. He was a Franciscan missionary native to the Basilan Province, so his words were mostly Chavacano, the Filipino-Spanish Creole spoken by the people in his region.

He said: “Este Semana Santa, un semana quita necesita sale na día tun normal maga rutina y reflecta na día tun espiritual vida. Aquí ahora quita debe anda cerca con el día tun Señor – pedí quita perdón para na maga culpa ya hace quita contra con ele y na día tun maga vecinos. We must repent, hace quita maga acción que favorable con ele como maga rezo y anda quita vira ole na Iglesia. Man junto quita con el día tun Señor Jesús na todo di suyo maga sufrimiento a cavar levanta quita junto con ele na Resurrección. Por causa cay ya tiene ya quita un nuevo vida, limpio de maga pecado y honde bien vivo el Espíritu Santo. ¡Gracias a Dios por este día! ¡El día del entrada del día tun Señor na Jerusalén!”

When I was back in my bedroom, I retrieved my book and continued to read. I was unconsciously led to realize what Father Jaime said when I finally read the last of the essay (the one I could say was my favourite):

Meanwhile the cross comes before the crown and tomorrow is a Monday morning. A cleft has opened in the pitiless walls of the world, and we are invited to follow our great Captain inside. The following Him is, of course, the essential point. That being so, it may be asked what practical use there is in the speculations which I have been indulging. I can think of at least one such use. It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner—no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden.

Letter to the Readers

Dear Reader,

The inspiration for this novel came from a book by Lurlene McDaniel, “She Died Too Young”. One of the books in the “One Last Wish” series, it was published by Bantam Books on March 1994. Although its main reading audience were children ages 10 and up, I still love to read it, even now, because of the many good values explored in the story. It is a story of friends, of family, of enemies, of love, of survival, and of life.

I was fascinated and touched by one very specific quote in the story:

Katie’s voice had risen with the tide of panic rising inside of her. “There’re two people in need and only one heart.”

The two people she refers to here are her two best friends, Chelsea James and Jillian Longado – both girls born with weak hearts. When their medical situation grows desperate, Chelsea finds herself in a contest for her life against her very best friend. This conflict is tear-jerking because of the question that runs through the minds of the two girls:

“Is it fair that there’s only a chance for one of them to survive?”

Deeply touched and inspired by this story’s conflict and theme, I decided to write a story anchored on a similar concept. I thought that if “She Died Too Young” climaxed in a conflict between two girls, how would a story be if the conflict was between a girl and a boy? Moreover, I was definitely intrigued by the idea of love set in a conflict. I mean, “She Died Too Young” explored the love between friends but what if another story explores the love of a romantically-involved couple? How can an author execute the sacrifice and selflessness for life of the other described in the latter?

So I put my heroine in a situation that she knows about everything in the story, yet she tries to be an altruist for all the ones she loves.

I must admit, my dear reader, I did not base my story solely in Lurlene McDaniel’s “She Died Too Young”, for doing that will be plagiarism. Instead, I mixed many different ideas and elements inspired from several sources and in doing so, I made something originally mine in imagination.

For example, I put my main character in the life of a girl suffering from the severely strict and brutal upbringing of her mother. I based this idea from my own experience, as I am the younger child who endured the brunt of a mother’s anger and discipline since childhood. Everything I wrote in my heroine’s first-person point of view – which she describes as her experiences from her mother – are my very own. So if you grimace at the awful treatment she received, well, I am speaking from a reality of life – of the reality of my life.

As for the love triangle, I’ve built in the familiarity I get of love from my friends and family. Also, of the traditional boy-loves-girl-but-girl-chooses-another form of love story which is the trend of romances these days.

Though it may seem so, the ending of this story will not be tragic. I am a fan of Happy-Ever-Afters and I believe that everyone must have them, no matter what their life is. You can judge my story later, but I promise you that in my story, you will learn that death is not a heartbreaking event to cry about, but a sacrifice to be offered to another person. Just like what world-renowned author Mitch Albom wrote in his bestselling inspirational book, “The Five People You Meet In Heaven”: “When you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it. You’re just passing it on to someone else.”

I hope that you will enjoy and find something valuable in this novel of mine that you will cherish for a lifetime. I really gave my heart to this work, and so I pray that you will feel it while reading.

God bless you!

The Author,

Jenny Mae S. Talaver