After two whole months of careful planning and diligent preparation, the Crimson Heights School annual fair is finally underway. The two-day affair sees the entire high school campus transformed into a grand festival, filled with fun game booths, interesting shops, and all sorts of food stands.
As President of the Crimson Heights Junior High School Student Council, it is my job to make sure that the students act according to the set guidelines for the event. Thankfully, my fellow officers are responsible and proactive, so I don’t really have that much to worry about. What’s more, our upperclassmen equivalents from the senior high council are already on top of most matters. The only problem I’ve had to troubleshoot so far was the clogged restroom at the Grade 8 corridor, which was easily addressed with a quick call to the head custodian.
Everything is going well and according to plan—up until the moment I get arrested.
“You are hereby under arrest for the crime of wearing a red accessory,” Ate Kim of Grade 12 – Class B declares, playfully tugging on the black cotton rope she has lassoed around my waist. She gestures at the red plastic headband on top of my head. “You will now be taken under the custody of the Crimson Heights Stuck With You Booth.”
What on earth? “Ate Kim, I’m on the student council. You can’t arrest me!” I protest as I get dragged past the Grade 10 classrooms and out into the wide expanse of the school field. Scattered all throughout the grounds are various game booths manned by the different high school classes and clubs, with tons of people roaming around to join the fun or just revel in the spectacle. “I’m supposed to be overseeing the event!”
My protests only seem to amuse Ate Kim as she continues leading me towards her class’s booth smack dab in the middle of the field. “Since you’re in the student council, Ada, you should know very well that I’m just following our booth rules. You don’t have an ‘I’ve Already Been Caught’ sticker, do you?” She makes a big show of looking for the special neon yellow sticker on my shirt that would’ve meant that I’ve already been a victim of one of the infamous Grade 12 booths and am thus immune to any further catching.
“And we did announce that our catch criterion for the next two hours is ‘wearing red accessories,’ right? Fair game?”
I frown. Almost every class and club has been using the PA system to promote their booths and special offers, so I can’t really remember each and every one that comes out on air. And besides, I’ve been too busy going around, making sure everything is going smoothly, to pay attention to all the announcements. That is decidedly not fair game. “But I…”
Before I can think of a reason that would get me out of this unexpected development, we arrive in front of the Stuck With You booth, which was built like an insanely colorful square prison cell. To the side of the padlocked entrance is a designated warden’s table, with another member of Grade 12 – Class B seated behind it, wearing an officer’s cap. I’m aware of all the booths and gimmicks featured in the school fair since I was one of the people who signed off on everything, along with the president of the senior high SC. Stuck With You is supposed to be our version of a jail booth. Only it looks like my upperclassmen have decided to put a little twist into it. From what I remember from the joint council meetings, two people are caught at a time and are “jailed” together inside the booth. As to how they’ll get out, well, I’m not so sure. They have to win at some sort of challenge, I think?
“Look who I caught! Junior High President Ada!” Ate Kim declares. She gives my head a quick tap. “Red headband. Clearly guilty.”
I don’t know the guy sitting behind the warden’s desk personally, but his nametag says “Jake.” So, Kuya Jake, then. He scratches his head in confusion. “Are we allowed to catch council members? Don’t they, like, have a job to do?”
I look pointedly at Ate Kim, but she doesn’t budge and still refuses to release me from the rope lasso. “They’re fair game! Nothing in the guidelines said anything about them having immunity.” Ate Kim guides me closer to the desk and nods at the printed list of game mechanics propped up on top. “Besides, if Ada’s that against it, she can always post bail.”
According to the printout, to play the game costs twenty pesos, but to post bail costs fifty pesos. This is clear extorsion. Why on earth did the SCs sign off on this again?
Oh right, for a good cause. All proceeds generated from the fair will be donated to our school’s partner beneficiaries, after all.
“Okay. Fine. I’m bailing myself out,” I sigh in defeat. I turn to face Ate Kim. “Can you please release me, so I can get my wallet?”
An amused smile still lingering on her face, Ate Kim finally removes the cotton rope from around me. But before I can reach inside my jeans pocket to fish out my wallet, another 12th grader approaches, with yet another caught 10th grader in tow. What is up with the upperclassmen targeting people in my batch?
“Right on time!” It’s Ate Jess, who is the vice president of the senior high student council. It looks like she’s off SC duties and is participating in her class’s booth right now instead. “I have our second player right here. Caught with a red bandana!”
Unlike me, the newest victim of the Stuck With You booth doesn’t seem to be showing much resistance to his capture. Since he’s tall and not to mention, insanely strong, he could have easily taken the rope from Ate Jess, set himself free, and made a run for it. But instead, he’s willingly allowing himself to be dragged to the front of the warden’s table. All while wearing this big smile on his face.
“Hey, Prez,” he says, unleashing the full power of that smile on me.
He smiles as if happy to learn that I know who he is. Of course, I do. How could I not? Vince and I may run in different friendship circles, but I know plenty about him. He’s smart, consistently on the honor roll, always ranking either fourth or fifth in the batch. He’s athletic, an arnisnador, a blue belt in Filipino martial arts. He’s charming, on good terms with almost everyone, and completely impossible not to like. Probably a favorite of the Big Guy Upstairs, Vince also happens to be quite the looker. The school’s very own golden boy.
“Tough luck. Ada’s bailing,” Kuya Jake says, getting ready to issue an immunity neon yellow sticker. “If you’re playing, Vince, you’ll have to wait in the cell until Kim catches a new player.”
“Why would you bail, Prez? Have you seen those prices?” Vince asks, gesturing at the printouts after getting released from the rope wound around his torso. “The two of us playing together is cheaper than one of us bailing.”
I know, but still. “I’ve got to get back to my patrol. I still haven’t covered the Grade 10 booths, and—”
“Oh, chill out, will you, Ada?” Ate Jess says, cutting me off with a laugh. “We, SC members, are allowed to enjoy the fair too, you know.”
“But if something suddenly happens and they need me—”
“They’ll call you,” Ate Kim pipes in, crossing her arms in front of her chest. “We’re not going to take away your phone. If you get an emergency SOS or whatever, we’ll let you out.”
Ugh. Quit making me feel like such a buzzkill. It’s not that I don’t want to have fun and enjoy the fair. It’s that I have a job to do. As SC President, I have to do the right thing and set an example for my fellow officers.
“If you’re so worried about the Grade 10 booths, know that I caught Vince in that area. Your vice president is there. The area is covered,” Ate Jess adds. Then, she tilts her head and smiles at me conspiratorially. “Ada, Stuck With You is essentially just a trivia game, and you’re good at trivia, aren’t you? This will be easy for you. You’ll get out on your first try. We had 8th graders a while ago, and they took three tries before succeeding.”
Ate Jess is trying way too hard, but I have to give her props for knowing just what to say to push my buttons. I can be competitive as hell, especially when it comes to trivia. I happen to be excellent at it, thank you very much. I’ve been winning trivia quiz bees since the 2nd grade, with my extensive knowledge in the random and nice-to-knows.
If this is a trivia game, I will most definitely get out on my first try.
I look up and meet Vince’s eyes. He gives me an encouraging nod.
“Okay, fine! I’ll play!” I declare, reaching for my wallet again.
“Great! Let’s do this!” Vince hands over two 20-peso bills to Kuya Jake then turns back to grin at me. “My treat.”
I totally got tricked, and I hate myself for it.
As soon as our payments were settled, Vince and I are led inside the colorful prison cell and are made to listen to a quick rundown of the game mechanics. Obviously, the goal is to get out of our prison. To do that, the two of us have to answer trivia questions, just like Ate Jess said. But here’s the catch—there’s always a catch, I really should have known—the questions aren’t going to be about the trivia that I know about. Not random facts and nice-to-know information.
It’s trivia about each other.
But the surprises did not stop there. More came in the form of a pair of plastic handcuffs. It’s not enough for Vince and me to be “imprisoned” together. No, we also have to be cuffed to each other.
When I get out of here, Ate Jess is going to get a lot of words from me.
“This is too much,” I sigh, tugging at the silly plastic toy that has my wrist fastened to Vince’s. “I mean, I don’t get it. It seems so unnecessary. It adds nothing to the game.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Prez,” Vince says, laughing. He raises his hand, and in turn, my hand, and gives the plastic handcuffs a little shake. “I think this is what makes the game. I’m literally stuck with you.” The boy actually has the audacity to wink at me. “Well, at least until we win.”
“Okay. We better start figuring out what kind of questions they’re going to ask us, so that, you know, we can give each other the answers,” I say, as we start walking around, taking in the seemingly random objects scattered all around the cell’s grass floor. The objects are supposed to help us figure out what questions we’ll be asked. We have seven minutes before Kuya Jake comes to let us make our first attempt at getting out, but so far, I haven’t the slightest idea what to make of some assorted school textbooks, a generic gold medal, a basketball, an empty metal cookie tin, and tubes of lip gloss. I turn to Vince, who I’m surprised to find looking at me, instead of checking out all the objects and figuring out our hint. “Uh, do you have any thoughts on this?” Because I’m stumped. Not that I’m going to be admitting that to anyone out loud.
Huh? “What do you mean?”
“I mean, that we should tell each other about our favorites,” Vince says, grinning. He points at the textbooks. “What’s your favorite school subject?”
Favorites. Okay. It’s a pretty decent idea. “Math.”
I don’t even have to think about that one. “Because I like how there can be a lot of ways to go about answering a single equation, and yet, you’d still end up with the same answer.”
Something shifts in Vince’s expression. He’s already looking at me, but his eyes take on what I think looks like astonishment. Or is it wonder? Whatever it is, it lasts only seconds before making way for his usual smile. “That sounds just like you.”
What’s that supposed to mean? I keep the words to myself, but I guess the question still manages to show up on my face. Vince lets out a laugh at my quizzical expression. He gently tugs at our joined wrists, the plastic handcuffs clinking with the movement. “It’s a compliment. It means I think you’re capable of finding solutions, of getting things done. You’re pretty amazing, Prez.”
Vince sounds so sincere that I can’t help but feel self-conscious. My cheeks feel warm all of a sudden. I tuck a stray lock of hair behind my ear and attempt to recover my wits. “Um, thanks.” Good going, Ada. Gratitude is a good place to start. “How about you, Vince? What’s your favorite subject?”
“Easy. Social Studies. I like learning about all the things that make us human. If we study them hard enough, I think it’ll be possible for us to figure out the answer to the most difficult problem in existence.”
“Oh? And what problem is that?”
“The meaning of life. What else?”
The giggling starts before I know it. I can’t help it. Being stuck with Vince in this jail game is definitely not going as I expected. The meaning of life. Really? Are we seriously turning philosophical right now? I’ve known the guy for four years now, and though I’d like to think that I have him completely figured out, Vince is proving to be surprising in many ways.
“What? Why are you laughing?”
I shake my head. “Nothing. Just that I never thought conversations inside prison could get this insightful.” I flash Vince a smile. “Now, come on. We still have to work on getting out of here.”
Using the “favorites” idea, the two of us go through the different objects in the cell. We interpret the gold medal to mean “personal achievement” (Mine: becoming student council president; His: solving a Rubik’s cube in 10 seconds), the basketball to mean “sport” (Mine: does Scrabble count as a sport?; His: arnis, of course), and the cookie tin to mean “snack” (Mine: cassava cake; His: Oreos).
But the lip gloss has the both of us stumped.
It can’t literally mean favorite lip gloss, right? I mean, I don’t even use lip gloss, and I doubt Vince does either. Favorite cosmetics sounds a bit too specific, so I doubt it’s that either.
“I have an idea, but you’re probably not going to like it,” Vince says, turning a tube of lip gloss over in his free hand. He inspects the glittery red liquid inside as if seeking answers from it.
“What is it?”
Vince gives the tube of lip gloss a gentle shake. For the first time since we got trapped inside this game booth, he avoids looking at me. “I think this represents a kiss. Or a date. Or a relationship. Something in that line of thinking.”
What! Okay, I barely understand what he’s trying to say, but Vince is right. I don’t like it already. “Why would they ask us about that?”
“You kidding, Prez? Why wouldn’t they ask about that?” Vince laughs. The unusual shakiness of his voice surprises me, making me look up at him. The realization comes a bit too late. The handcuffs have been making it so we can’t be more than inches apart, but as we were brainstorming about the possible meanings of the tubes of lip gloss, we’d somehow ended up standing so close to each other, so close that I am able to notice things I hadn’t before.
There’s a scar in the middle of his right eyebrow. It’s small and faint, just inches away from his eyelid.
“What happened there?”
Vince reaches up, momentarily forgetting that our hands are linked. He mumbles an apology for accidentally pulling my arm before correcting himself and reaching up with his free hand instead. “Arnis. An accident back in the fourth grade.”
“You got hit with the stick thing?”
He laughs. “It’s called a baston. And yeah, I did. I had to get stitches, but it’s fine. I think it healed up pretty nicely. You can barely see it now unless you look close.” He gives the scar a soft touch. “It’s a reminder that things can get messy if I’m not careful. But at the same time, it’s a reminder why I pursued the sport in the first place.”
“Um, I’m not sure I understand.”
“This scar will always be here with me,” Vince says. “But I decide how I’m going to see it. Either as a remnant of a painful experience, or merely a rough starting point that brought me to where I am now.” He grins that all too charming grin of his. “Just a few more steps away from my black belt.”
“Wow.” I have never seen Vince compete, let alone practice his sport before. Our school has a dedicated arnis club, of which he acts as team captain, and while I know that they participate in city-wide and even national competitions, I haven’t been curious enough to check out any of their activities.
But now, I’m definitely curious. Curious and interested.
A bell sounds as Kuya Jake unlocks the door of the cell and escorts us back in front of the warden’s table. “Alright, kids!” he says, gleefully. He slides a small box across the table and gestures to it with a flourish. “Time for your first attempt to escape. Remember, both of you must answer your respective questions correctly. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck with each other for another seven minutes, pending bail.”
Ah. Time’s up. We didn’t get to finish with the lip gloss thing.
I go first. Reaching inside the box, I pick out a random game card. There’s a picture of a book on the paper I drew, and the question reads: What is your partner’s favorite school subject?
Well, it looks like we’re right about the hint. I’m able to answer without difficulty. Thank goodness we’d talked about this beforehand. As long as Vince doesn’t get the card with the lip gloss, we should be fine.
Only we aren’t. Vince draws the exact card I was hoping he wouldn’t get. Luck doesn’t seem to be on our side today.
“Read the question aloud, Vince,” Kuya Jake instructs as he hands me a pen and a blank piece of paper to write my answer on. “Read, so Ada can hear.”
A beat passes. Vince stares at the card, biting his lip. Then, he clears his throat, as if to push away his hesitation, and reads, “What is your partner’s ideal date spot?”
Oh wow. It turns out that Vince’s theory was right, after all. He did an excellent job figuring out this game. If only I hadn’t gotten distracted by his scar. We might have gotten the opportunity to talk about this, no matter how awkward it might have gotten.
I haven’t been on many dates, but there is somewhere I really want to go. The place just recently opened, and all the pictures I’ve seen so far promise not only information and innovation but also great aesthetic. I think strolling around there for a day wouldn’t be so bad. I wonder if Vince would like to go there too.
Wait a minute. Why would it matter what Vince likes?
I scribble my answer quickly, knowing that there’s no way Vince will get it correct and that we’re going to have to spend another seven minutes together.
Unless, you know, we both pay bail and whatnot.
Then again, seven minutes wasn’t really long. It went a lot faster than I thought it would, and honestly, it wouldn’t be the worst thing to be stuck here with him.
“Okay. Ada has written down her answer. Let’s hear what you think, Vince,” Kuya Jake says in his best game show host voice. “What do you think is Ada’s ideal date spot?”
Vince’s gaze falls on me, and I smile at him reassuringly, trying to say that he can go ahead and guess, and that it’s okay if he gets it wrong. I won’t blame him. It’s a long shot, anyway, and we can just try again later after another seven minutes.
I think he got my mental message. Vince returns my smile, then turns to Kuya Jake. “A museum.”
Kuya Jake peers at the paper I gave him. His eyes widen in what I think looks like a mix of surprise and astonishment. “Be more specific.”
“Uh, the new one, maybe?” Vince scratches his head. “What’s it called? The National Museum for Natural History?”
“Wow. I honestly thought that it’d take you guys a couple tries but look at that.” Kuya Jake flips the paper over and shows what I’ve written. National Museum for Natural History. “Got it in one. Congratulations.”
Vince looks just as surprised as me. I tug at our still joined hands to catch his attention. “Hey. How did you know?”
“But you got it right!”
“I just… Well, because we didn’t discuss it, I just answered with my ideal date spot,” Vince says, sheepishly. “Who’d have thought we’d have that in common, huh?”
His second question remains unspoken, but I see it in his eyes anyway. It’s not hard. Not when it’s my question too. What else could we have in common?
“Okay. You guys are free to go.” Kuya Jake brings out a key from his pocket and gestures for us to raise our linked wrists so he could get us out of the handcuffs. “Come on. Give it here.”
I should be happier about winning. I should be hurrying Kuya Jake to let us out. I should be rushing back to my patrol of the fairgrounds.
But instead, all I can think about is that unspoken question: What else could Vince and I have in common? And how much I wanted to know the answer.
Before I can really think about it, I pull my cuffed wrist away, surprising both Vince and Kuya Jake. “No, thank you.”
“We’re playing again.” With my free hand, I fish out my wallet from my pocket. Then, remembering that this isn’t a solo game, I turn to my partner. “As long as you’re up for it.”
Vince blinks at me, taken aback at the sudden turn of events. Then, a smile settles on his face. “Of course, I’m up for it, Ada.”
“Great. My treat.” With Vince’s help, I pull out a fifty-peso bill from my wallet. I throw the money at a completely dumbfounded Kuya Jake.
“But I thought you had a job to do?”
“I’m sure the other officers have it covered.” Exchanging smiles, Vince and I willingly lock ourselves back inside the jail cell. Hands still cuffed. Gazes still fixed on each other.
“But—?” In his confusion, Kuya Jake can only look from us to the fifty-peso bill in his hand. “I’m just—”
“Keep the change!” I call back. Beside me, Vince lets out a laugh. “It’s for a good cause!”