My heart rate shot up to 81 bpm as soon as the attention was on us. The previous challenges were mainly group effort and everyone was simultaneously participating, but this one was different. I was the center of attention, along with Brian, and it was making me highly conscious.
Huminga ako nang malalim para muling kalmahin ang sarili ko. This is a game, I reminded myself. I didn’t want to be the cause of our team’s loss.
When Ms. Hanna signaled us to start, I forced myself to ignore the crowd. Agad kong in-imagine na kami lang ni Brian ang narito para makapag-focus ako sa game.
“Uhm, hi,” I started awkwardly.
He cleared his throat. “Hello, Elix.”
“First, I want to say that you’re handsome.”
I recalled our strategy a while ago. Roi said guys like it when you praise their looks, so that should be my first attack. Although, it was also the truth.
May hitsura naman talaga si Brian at isa siya sa pinakasikat na writers sa site. Like Roi, readers would always share his posts kaya kahit hindi ko naman siya friend o fina-follow sa social media ay nakikita ko ang mga iyon. I thought it would be futile to praise his looks since he was already getting that a lot, so I was surprised when his heart rate suddenly increased.
Oh. I guess he still gets flustered when someone compliments his appearance.
Bigla naman siyang nag-iwas ng tingin. “You’re cute, too,” mahina niyang sabi.
Unlike him, hindi nagbago ang heart rate ko nang marinig ko ‘yon. Siguro dahil hindi ako naniniwala? I mean, I wasn’t the type of person whom someone would even call pretty or cute, and I knew that since a long time ago. Normal lang ako at madalas pa nga ay iniisip kong walang kahit anong maganda sa akin physically.
Maybe that was also the reason why I only posted filtered pictures before. I did receive compliments from readers, but it felt like I was deceiving them and myself, so I stopped posting my pictures several years ago.
“You’re nice, too,” dagdag ko. “And I’m quite comfortable when I’m talking with you.”
Noong una ay awkward pa ako sa kanya lalo na at lagi siyang tinitingnan ng iba kaya kung sino ang kasama niya ay paniguradong mapapansin din ng karamihan. I was also worried because people who would be watching this show might get the wrong idea, but after walking with him the other day, mukhang genuine naman siyang tao at gusto niyang may matutunan mula sa akin sa pagsusulat kaya kahit papaano ay hindi na ganoon ako ganoon ka-awkward kapag nakakasalubong ko siya.
Nagulat ako nang lalo pang tumaas ang heart rate niya at pumalo ito sa 110 bpm kaya medyo napakunot ang noo ko. Wow, mukhang kahinaan niya talaga ang compliments, ano?
“Elix, dahan-dahan, baka mamatay ‘yan!” yelled Lan from the left side.
Nawala ako sa concentration at na-realize ko na may ibang tinawanan ang comment niya habang ang ilan ay nakatingin nang nakakaloko sa amin. Tinamaan ako bigla ng hiya kaya bumilis din ang tibok ng puso ko.
“Ako naman, lalong kinakabahan,” biglang sabi niya kaya bumalik ang atensyon ko sa kanya.
“Dahil reader at fan mo ako,” he continued as he flashed a bashful smile. “I do want to meet you because I’m curious. Your stories are very compelling to me, and they inspired me a lot when it comes to writing. Uhm, at idagdag pa na medyo mysterious ka,” he chuckled.
Hearing that made my heart skip a beat. I did get a lot of good comments and flattery from my readers, but as a pessimist, madalas ay hindi ako ganoong naniniwala dahil pakiramdam ko ay hindi ko naman deserve. That perhaps they just liked my stories because I had quite a number of followers, and they just forced themselves to read and like them because of my name.
But hearing it from a fellow writer who probably shared the same concerns and worries was kind of reassuring, and almost heart-fluttering.
Agad akong huminga nang malalim dahil nararamdaman kong bumibilis na naman ang tibok ng puso ko. I appreciated his words, but I couldn’t afford to lose this.
“Thank you,” sagot ko. “I want to get to know you more, too,” sabay ngiti ko sa kanya.
Bigla namang tumunog ang timer at doon ko lang na-realize na last three seconds na lang pala pero napanganga ako nang makita kong umakyat pa ang heart rate ni Brian sa 116 bpm bago natapos ang time.
“Time’s up! The winner is Elix, and it’s a point for the pink team!” Miss Hanna announced.
I heaved a sigh of relief after hearing that, but I somehow felt sorry for him.
“Okay lang ‘yan, alam naman na namin na matatalo ka!” sigaw ulit ni Lan habang pabalik si Brian sa kanila.
Pinabunot naman ako mula sa bowl at gray ang nakuha ko. I chose Ben and he picked Meijin from brown team.
Parang naubos naman ang energy ko noong pabalik na ako sa upuan ko. The nervousness and embarrassment had finally caught up with me, and it felt like my heart would leap out of my throat because it was beating so fast.
Nakakahiya. Ang daming nakatingin kanina tapos kung anu-ano ang pinagsasabi ko kay Brian. Sana lang talaga at hindi ‘yon gawing issue.
“Omg Elix, ang galing mo!” Arin squealed while patting my shoulder. “Jusko paano ka naka-survive sa harap ni Brian?”
“Willpower,” I replied in a deadpan tone.
Tinapik din ni Roi ang balikat ko. “Sabi sa ‘yo effective, eh,” sabay taas niya sa kilay niya.
“Nice play,” dagdag ni Zion. “Although you did get flustered when it’s about to end.”
“Well . . .”
It couldn’t be help. Hindi naman ako sanay na nakakarinig ng compliments sa personal kaya medyo nagulat ako kanina.
After that ay mas naging kalmado na ako dahil tapos na ang turn ko. Most used the same tactic—fluster the opponent through flattery. And Arin was one of the many victims. Paano ba naman ay sinabihan siya ni Cenon ng “Crush kita.”
Agad na tumaas ang heart rate ni Arin at hindi na siya naka-recover kahit anong pag-atake niya.
“That was an effective bluff,” commented Zion.
I silently agreed. Cenon’s heart rate was stable, and it hadn’t crossed the 85-bpm mark since the start of the challenge. Meanwhile, Roi easily overwhelmed Wannie. Medyo nanibago nga ako dahil composed lang siya habang nagtatanong at pinupuri Si Wannie.
Zion used a different tactic. And quite a unique one. Ina was fazed when he suddenly narrated some trivia about love.
“Did you know that when you’re attracted to or have a crush on someone, your brain releases high levels of dopamine and noradrenaline? And these chemicals make you giddy and euphoric. They are also the reason why your heart is racing, and your palms become sweaty when you’re near your crush.”
Pagkasabi niya no’n ay nag-jump ang heart rate ni Ina from 89 to 120 bpm at hindi na siya naka-recover.
He was perfectly wearing his poker face while walking back toward us, but I could tell he was feeling smug after his win.
“Taray, may pa-science trivia ang kuya mo,” commented Arin. “So, alam mong may crush sa ‘yo si Ina?”
He shrugged, seemingly nonchalant. “I have no idea. Sinabi ko lang ‘yung naalala ko noong college.”
As someone from the scientific field, I honestly felt amused that he used such technical terms to his advantage. There’s this vague feeling of interest kasi kapag nakasalamuha ka ng taong alam din ang alam mo at kapag may bago kang natututunan mula sa kanya.
“Not bad,” I remarked.
He snickered in return. “Right?”
May ilan naman na piniling inisin ang kalaban nila, which was also quite effective. Imari from purple team won against Ben using this tactic. Sinabihan niya kasi si Ben ng pandak at ayun, tumaas yata ang heart rate at blood pressure niya sa inis.
We got three points after the game, but nothing had changed in the ranking. Lahat kasi ng nasa top five ay three points din ang nakuha kaya third place pa rin kami.
Bumalik naman kami sa kani-kaniya naming cabins matapos ang challenge for this day, pero may ilan na nagsisimula nang makipag-interact sa mga nakalaban nila kanina. Sabagay, it’s been five days since we arrived here in the camp. Normal lang siguro na marami ka nang makausap o maging kaibigan lalo na’t kami-kami lang din naman ang nandito. Pero marami ring tulad ko na mas comfortable kapag wala masyadong kausap o ‘di kaya naman ay sa teammates lang nakikipag-interact. After all, a lot of writers are introverts.
Arin and Roi were right outside our cabin, too. There were several girls who wanted to talk to Roi, but he looked bashful, a stark contrast to his performance earlier. Medyo wala siyang hiya kapag kaming tatlo ang kausap at kaharap niya pero mukhang hindi siya ganoon kakomportable sa harap ng mga taong hindi niya gaanong nakakausap. I guess kapag kailangan, lalo na sa challenge, ay kaya niyang maging seryoso at composed tulad nang ginawa niya kanina noong kaharap si Wannie. Arin, on the other hand, was all smiles. She had a bright and bubbly personality from the start, so I guess, mingling with others was quite an easy feat for her.
Napabuntonghininga naman ako habang pabagsak na umupo sa couch sa loob ng cabin. We didn’t even do any physically taxing activities, but I was so tired. Mas madali talagang nauubos ang energy ko kapag mga tao ang kailangan kong harapin.
Few minutes later, Zion arrived, holding four cups of coffee in a paper holder. Inilapag niya ‘yon sa low table sa pagitan namin.
“Kinuhanan na rin kita,” he said while settling on the chair across me.
“Oh. Thanks,” sabay kuha ko sa kapeng nasa mesa. Tamang-tama dahil hindi pa ako nagkakape ngayong araw. Kaya pala medyo wala akong energy kanina pa.
Tahimik akong uminom ng kape at ganoon din ang ginawa niya. As expected, naglakad siya papunta sa nakasabit na white board sa gilid. He updated the scores of the top five teams pero dahil wala namang nagbago sa ranking ay hindi niya ito binura.
He heaved a sigh as he returned to his seat. “Third place for our first week, huh?”
Mukhang disappointed siya sa ranking namin, but I think it was already a feat, given that we didn’t even know how this program would run. The members of each team were just getting to know each other, too, so the synergy wasn’t the best yet. Pero ngayong may idea na ang lahat sa flow ng program, for sure ay mas magiging competitive ang bawat team.
“It’s a good start,” mahina kong sabi. “At least nasa top 3 na tayo kahit simula pa lang.”
“Right. Kailangan lang nating protektahan ang lead natin. And I still want us to aim for the top spot.”
“I think it’s possible,” I replied, but immediately felt conscious upon remembering the challenge earlier. “Uhh, as long as the genre isn’t romance.”
He snickered at my remark. “Yeah, muntik ka nang matalo kanina. That was close.”
I clicked my tongue in return. “Sorry. It’s my weakness.”
“Akala ko ba horror ang weakness mo?”
“’Yun din,” I muttered.
“I guess romance as a theme for a game is quite fun,” he remarked while sipping his coffee. “The heart never lies, after all. Or in the case earlier, the heart rate monitor.”
I almost grimaced upon hearing that. Sa totoo lang, hindi ko talaga gusto ang challenge kanina. Hindi lang naman for romance o kilig ang dahilan kung bakit bumibilis ang tibok ng puso ng isang tao. Hindi ba pwedeng kabado lang? O kaya natatakot? O medyo iritado?
Nawala naman ang train of thought ko nang biglang nagbago ang expression ni Zion. He put his coffee down and broke into a grin.
My brows subtly furrowed at the sight. Honestly, I was taken aback. After being with him for these past few days, Zion was the type to smirk or snicker cunningly. ‘Yung ngiting parang laging may binabalak lalo na kapag challenge ang usapan. It was the first time I saw him smiling genuinely.
“Wow. May naisip akong plot para sa ipapasang story,” sabi niya at bigla siyang tumayo.
Sinundan ko siya nang tingin hanggang sa mawala siya dahil pumunta siya sa kwarto nila ni Roi. Paglabas niya ay dala na niya ang tablet at nakasuot siya ng reading glasses.
“Gagamitin mo ba ‘tong keyboard?” sabay turo niya ro’n sa nakapatong sa lamesa. I shook my head. “Okay, ako muna.”
Umupo siya sa lapag at inilagay niya ang tablet sa lamesa. He started typing and it was quite strange to see him working hard. He usually wore a scheming face, so this one was unfamiliar. I also found it fascinating that he could keep an impassive expression while writing. Ako kasi napapatingin sa paligid lalo na kapag nag-iisip ng tamang words para sa sentence. Madalas, unconsciously ko ring nagagaya ang expression ng character na sinusulat ko kaya medyo nahihiya akong magsulat sa harap nila.
“What is it?” bigla niyang tanong habang nakatingin sa tablet at patuloy na nagta-type.
He stopped typing and met my gaze. “You’re staring. And you’re making me self-conscious.”
My eyes widened and I leaned back a little after realizing that I did stare at him for too long. Crap. Nakakahiya.
“S-Sorry,” sabi ko sabay kuha sa tablet ko na nasa gilid ng couch dahil sinubukan kong magsulat kagabi rito. I started fiddling with it—something I always do when I’m feeling uneasy or worked up.
Napahawak siya sa pisngi niya. “May dumi ba ako sa mukha?”
“Wala,” mabilis kong sagot. “Uhh . . . hindi lang ako sanay na mukha kang nag-e-effort—I mean, you look like you’re genuinely working hard—” Agad akong napatigil dahil parang rude ang construction ng sentence ko at hindi ko na maayos ito midway.
I sighed in dejection after realizing the blunder I made. “Sorry, that was rude.”
Akala ko ma-o-offend siya, but to my surprise, he just laughed it off. “No worries. You’re right,” sabi niya. “Wala akong balak mag-submit ng story initially, pero ngayong may naisip na akong plot, I kinda feel excited and I want to write it as soon as possible.”
I drew a breath of relief. Mabuti na lang at ‘di siya na-offend. Medyo nakakatakot siyang maging kaaway.
Na-inspire naman ako nang kaunti kaya in-open ko na rin ang file ng story na sinusulat ko.
“Oh, you’re writing, too?” tanong niya. “Mukhang may na-inspire, ah. O nainggit.”
And now, he’s back to his usual sly self.
I scoffed in return. “As if.”
“Are you up for a challenge?” dagdag niya kaya napataas ang kilay ko. Ano na namang binabalak niya?
“I see. So, you know you’ll lose. Alright.”
Para namang nagpantig ang tenga ko sa sinabi niya. My god, this guy really knew how to provoke me and my unwillingness to lose to him.
His lips curled in satisfaction. “Paramihan ng word count?”
Pinatong ko ang tablet sa lamesa at umupo rin sa lapag. “Deal.”
The challenge between us started and I could feel my insides burning with desire to win.
May it be our team opponents or my own teammates, I don’t plan on losing to anyone . . . but more especially to him.