“Whoa, whoa, Elix, dahan-dahan baka mamatay,” Roi commented when I put my hand inside the second fish tank.
Napahinto ako dahil sa itsura nilang dalawa. Hindi ko alam kung hayop na buhay ba talaga ang nasa loob o pinagt-tripan lang nila ako, but that was enough to make me nervous.
I regained my focus and searched for the coin, but I flinched when I felt something slimy. Halos ilabas ko ang buong kamay ko mula sa fish tank dahil doon at agad na napatingin sa dalawa.
“Is this . . .” The word got caught in my throat.
“Ingat sa paghahanap,” Zion noted while suppressing a smirk.
Napalunok na lang ako at nagpakawala ng isang malalim na buntong-hininga. My mind had already decided that the fish tank was housing a snake and that thought made my skin crawl. Ang hirap talaga kapag hindi mo alam kung ano ang nasa harapan mo, especially for writers since we have creative and wild imaginations.
Hindi ko alam kung paano ko natapos ang challenge nang hindi sumisigaw. Or maybe I did, and I was not just aware myself. Pero si Arin ang pinakamalala. Hindi pa nga niya napapasok ang kamay niya sa fish tank ay sumigaw na agad siya at halos matumba sa pag-atras. Nakakuha siya ng isa mula sa una pero hindi na niya nagawa ulit dahil sa takot. She was already crying when she got to the second one, much to the guys’ amusement.
Anyway, our team got ten coins in total: four from Zion, two from Roi, three from me and one from Arin.
Paglabas namin sa gazebo ay nakita ko ang expressions ng ibang teams. Some were shocked when they saw Arin crying. Maging ako at si Roi ay nanghina matapos ang challenge na ‘yon. Parang si Zion lang ang walang pinagbago. He also had a smug look on his face because he got the highest score among us.
“E-Elix, anong nangyari?”
Lessy’s face was as white as chalk when I turned to her direction. Iba talaga ang takot kapag hindi mo pa alam kung ano ang haharapin mo.
Because we weren’t allowed to spill the beans, I just patted her head and told her good luck.
Pinapunta naman kami sa kabilang gazebo na mayroon ding harang kung nasaan ang Brown team at tawang-tawa sila nang pumasok kami.
“Lakas ng sigaw mo, Roi!” Jason commented while laughing.
It turned out everything was live feed into the monitor in front of them. Nakita nila kung paano kami nag-react sa mga nasa loob ng fish tanks at bigla akong tinamaan ng hiya. I was not as extreme as Roi and Arin, but I was sure I still acted stupid and scared for a few minutes.
In-announce naman ang Red team na sunod na papasok dahil ang kulay nila ang nabunot ni Zion kanina. And as expected, halos ganoon din ang reactions nila.
“Gago, ‘wag kang gumalaw!” Ren squealed as he dug his hand into one of the tanks. “Tangina-aaahhh!”
“Shet! Ano ‘yon! Dinilaan ‘yung kamay ko! Gago!”
Halos mag-slide na sa floor ang katawan nina Jason at Roi kakatawa at mangiyak-ngiyak naman sina Lareza at Meijin. I saw Zion cracking a smile, too, as he watched the chaos in the center gazebo.
Wala yatang team ang hindi sumigaw habang ginagawa ang challenge, pero may iilan na nagawa pang tumawa nang malakas. For sure, na-excite sa challenge ang iba, lalo na ang horror at thriller writers.
The funny thing was the contents of the tanks were just random things and food—gummy worms, stainless steel sponges, chicken feet, sensory balls, plastic cockroach toys, cooked pasta, vegetable peelings, and slimes soaked in water.
Nang matapos ang lahat ng teams ay agad na lumabas sa malaking monitor ang results at ranking. The maximum score a team could get was 32 and the first placer only accumulated 21 points. Halos karamihan ng scores ay around 10 lang, which was understandable.
“Wow, first place tayo? Nice!” Ben from Gray team beamed. As expected from a horror and paranormal writer. He must have nerves of steel.
The crew also projected some noteworthy scenes from the challenge. Ipinakita si Ben na tumatawa habang kinukuha ang coins sa fish tanks. Feliz, his teammate who writes mystery also got a lot of coins habang ang dalawa pa nilang kasama ay sumisigaw na sa takot.
Aside from Ben, Imari from Purple team was also remarkable. Hindi ako familiar sa kanya pero sabi ni Arin ay teen fiction writer si Imari, yet she had the sweetest smile while showing the coins to her teammates. Ipinakita rin ang mga halos mamatay na sa takot at ang mga nakakatawang reactions. Michael from Silver team looked like he was popping because he was continuously flinching even though his hand was far from the objects. Of course, representative sa team namin si Roi na pinaulanan ng mura lahat ng fish tanks.
“Nakakahiya,” he mumbled while covering his face, as the challengers laughed at his actions.
“Omg, buti ‘di ako pinakita,” bulong naman ni Arin at ganoon din ang nasa isip ko.
Zion shook his head. “Wala na, bumagsak na tayo sa ranking.”
He was right. From second place, we dropped to fifth. Meanwhile, Green team remained at the top. Hindi ko nga inaasahan na wala ring takot si Yena sa challenge. Lan, one of their teammates and a fantasy-adventure writer, also contributed to their score. Kahit sina Brian at Lessy ay nakakuha ng coins. No wonder they did not drop in the rankings.
If only the challenge was related to fantasy or mystery, I was sure we would not lose. Kailangan naming bumawi sa next.
Naglabas din ng individual ranking para sa mga hindi natakot sa challenge, or those who remained calm despite the chaos. The top 5 were Ben, Imari, Yena, Feliz, and Zion. Siguro ay may incentives din silang matatanggap.
He suddenly looked at my direction, and of course, there was a smug look on his face. I willed myself not to roll my eyes at him.
Everyone was exhausted after the challenge so the producers said we could do anything for the rest of the day. Karamihan ay pumunta agad sa pavilion para kumain ng lunch, pero bumalik muna ako sa cabin para magpahinga.
My body recoiled as soon as I heard a voice beside me, but I immediately grunted when I saw Zion suppressing a teasing smile. After ng challenge na ‘yon ay mas lalo akong naging fidgety at mukhang na-realize niya rin ‘yon.
“Ano?” I grumbled.
His lips curled in amusement. “Ba’t ka galit?”
“If you say so.”
We walked back toward our cabin in silence. To be honest, I was drained after the nerve test, and not just because of its nature, but because I was interacting with a lot of people earlier. I needed an alone time to recharge.
Pagpasok namin sa cabin ay dumiretso ako couch at humilata. The challenges were fun but talking to several people every day and trying to match their energies were too much for me. Napapagod pati kaluluwa ko.
I was lost in thought for several minutes that I only noticed Zion scribbling and erasing words on the whiteboard. As I craned my neck, I saw the updated list of the rankings and some random words.
My mind and body should be resting, but curiosity got the better of me. “Anong sinusulat mo?” tanong ko.
“Hm?” Saglit siyang lumingon sa akin. “Ah. I’m thinking of ways to return to the top spot.”
His answer got my whole attention, and I sat right next to him.
“Since rank five na tayo, kailangan nating maging 1st or 2nd placers sa next challenges para umakyat. It seems like every challenge has been under speculative genres so far, so I think the next one may be related to science fiction, historical fiction, or horror.”
I tried remembering the previous challenges. Mystery for the opening segment, adventure for finding the balls every day, and thriller for the nerve test. Mukhang may point naman ang speculation niya. Still, I shuddered at the thought of anything related to horror. God, I loathe scary stuff.
“Arin is afraid of bugs and Roi panics when it comes to things he can’t directly see. Ikaw ba? What’s something you can’t do?” tanong niya pero nararamdaman kong may bahid iyon ng pang-aasar. “So, we can cover each other’s weak points.”
I averted his gaze. “Nothing.”
Sinamaan ko siya ng tingin. “Fine. H-horror,” mahina kong sabi.
“Horror. Any scary stuff,” I repeated in displeasure.
Hinintay ko naman ang magiging reaksyon niya pero nakatitig lang siya sa akin. Seconds later, he tried to suppress a grin.
“Huh. Nagsusulat ka rin ng mystery and crime novels, ‘di ba?” tanong niya at mukhang alam ko na kung saan ito papunta. “Interesting.”
“Bawal na ba magsulat ng mystery and thriller stories ang matatakutin?” I retorted.
He shrugged, but I could see him chuckling internally at the thought. “I just said it’s interesting. Wala naman akong sinabing bawal.”
“How about you?” I asked, shifting the focus on him. “Any weaknesses?”
“Hmm . . . wala akong maisip,” he said. “Hindi naman ako matatakutin. Ah, siguro kung related sa romance?”
Oh. Speaking of romance, mukhang ganoon din ako. I don’t read romantic novels dahil nagc-cringe ako madalas sa lines. Naiinis din ako minsan kasi parang mamamatay ang characters kapag may conflict between them and the love of their lives. Ayaw ko ng stories na sa romantic relationship lang umiikot ang lahat.
“Hindi ako nagbabasa ng gano’ng genre,” pagpapatuloy niya. “Bahala na si Arin doon.”
Matapos niyang mag-strategize ay pumunta kami sa pavilion para mag-late lunch. Around 5 P.M. ay nagkaroon ng announcement ang main PD, which turned out to be the creative team head of the site, too—Ms. Hannah Jung.
Some of the writers were in their respective cabins, while others were roaming around the camp. Still, speakers were everywhere so everyone could hear what she was saying.
Ms. Hannah started the speech by expressing her gratitude for our participation. The start of the program was a success and she said she was glad that everyone seems to be having a good time.
“I’m sure most of you joined the program due to curiosity, but I am pleased to announce that the top team to emerge at the end will be receiving a cash prize and a laptop of your choice.”
Nagkatinginan kami ni Arin at napanganga siya sa narinig. Narinig pa namin ang ilan na nagsigawan sa labas. That surely pumped up everyone.
“Also, I would like to announce that everyone is encouraged to write a story while you are here. It can be related to the project, or anything that you can come up with. You will be given tablets where you can write your story, and those who are interested are required to write a minimum of 500 words every day. The team will then choose three stories that will be published in print once the program ends.”
A chorus of ‘oh my god’ and cheers could be heard throughout the camp after her last remark. As writers, sino ba naman ang palalampasin ang pagkakataon na makapag-publish ng kanyang story?
“That is all for today, Challengers! All the best! I hope we can see your stories soon at the bookstores!”
Half an hour later, the staffs distributed tablets to those who wished to participate . . . which were practically everyone.
“Game!” sigaw ni Arin habang nakaupo sa couch. Her blonde hair was tied into a loose bun, and she had a serious face while typing on the tablet. Ganoon din si Roi, and for the first time ay nakita ko siyang seryoso.
Napabuntong-hininga naman ako. I wanted to write, too, but I couldn’t think of a decent plot at the moment. I need to find an inspiration.
“Arin,” biglang tawag ni Zion. “Anong—”
“Mamaya ka na, Zion. Busy ako,” Arin said without even looking at him.
My gaze shifted to Zion. Unlike Arin and Roi, his attention was still on the whiteboard. Mukhang mas gusto niyang maging top team kami kaysa gumawa ng story.
Competitive din naman ako pagdating sa ganito, but this guy takes the cake. Hindi talaga siya titigil hangga’t hindi kami nagf-first place. Understandable naman dahil malaki ang prize and honestly, mas prefer ko rin ‘yon . . .
. . . wait.
A huge project. A group of writers. And competitive main characters.