“So, anong strategy natin?” tanong ni Roi habang nakatingin sa linked bracelets nila ni Arin. Zion shifted his gaze to Arin. “You lead,” he said, prompting Roi to look at him with a shocked expression on his face.
“Teka, bakit siya at hindi ako?” sabay turo niya sa sarili niya.
Arin, on the other hand, had a smug look on her face. “Tinatanong pa ba ‘yan? Zion trusts my judgment more than yours.”
“Just make sure to tear the other teams’ bracelets if they approach you,” dagdag ni Zion. “I’ll leave the gameplay to you.”
Bumalik ang tingin niya sa akin at agad na napakunot ang noo ko nang makita ko ang pagngisi niya. “What?” I grumbled.
He tilted his head to mock me. “I thought the loser is not allowed to talk back?”
“I’m just asking a question,” I retorted, fighting the urge to roll my eyes.
He shrugged his shoulders, but his expression remained cocky. “If you say so.”
We finalized our strategy for the remaining minutes of preparation. Roi and Arin would just try to attack everyone. Those two were fit enough for this kind of challenge. Maski ako ay matatakot kapag nakita ko silang tumatakbo papunta sa akin.
Meanwhile, Zion and I would prioritize hiding to ensure that one of our groups would survive. Puwede rin kaming mang-ambush kapag may chance pero sa lampa kong ‘to, sure akong matatanggal ang bracelet namin sa oras na sumugod ako.
“We’re going to lead you to your starting points in blindfolds,” Ms. Hanna announced. “You can start when you hear the whistle. Alright?”
Everyone nodded and the staff members started blindfolding everyone. Medyo kinabahan ako dahil baka hindi pa nagsisimula ang challenge ay maputol na agad ang sa amin dahil hindi namin nakikita ang dinadaanan. I tried to stay as close to him as possible to make sure that the paper bracelets wouldn’t be stretched out too much while the staff members were carefully steering us toward our supposed starting points.
Makalipas ang ilang minuto ay binitiwan na ng staff ang magkabilang-balikat ko at huminto na rin kami sa paglalakad. They removed our blindfolds a second later and I realized we were at the entrance of the hanging bridge.
“Oh, shit,” Zion cursed while quickly clinging onto the right log anchor.
It was already too late when he realized I was smirking at his struggle to hide his fear of heights. He cleared his throat and averted his gaze. “Hindi ka puwedeng mang-asar.”
“Wala pa nga akong sinasabi,” I replied, much to his embarrassment.
Natigil naman ang pag-uusap namin nang may marinig kaming kaluskos sa paligid. Behind one of the trees in the woods, Wannie and Robert from red team showed up, and charged at us.
Agad akong nag-panic nang makita ko silang tumatakbo papunta sa amin. My mind and heart were still not prepared for the challenge, but we were forced to take action.
Zion suddenly reached for my hand, and pulled me away. Tumakbo kami palayo sa kanila pero patuloy pa rin sila sa paghabol sa amin.
“Bilis! Bilis!” rinig kong sigaw ni Wannie sa likuran.
They were eager to tear off our paper bracelets especially since we were ahead of them in the rankings.
“Shit, we’re cornered,” huffed Zion.
We were about to cross the stone bridge, but Erica and Gon from black team came. Napalibutan tuloy kami ng dalawang group kaya na-stuck kami sa gitna ng bridge.
“What’s our plan?” bulong ko habang hinihingal.
Halos isang minuto pa lang kaming tumatakbo pero pagod na ako. Idagdag pa na kinakabahan ako kaya mas lalo pa akong nahirapang huminga.
“Stay close to me,” he whispered. “Huwag mong hayaang makalapit sila sa bracelets.”
He lightly squeezed my hand and I was suddenly reminded of the horror house challenge. I wasn’t in my right mind that time so I didn’t get that conscious while we were inside, but this time, I was aware of what was happening. This might be the most practical strategy to protect the bracelets, but it was still embarrassing.
I shifted my focus to Wannie and Robert while Zion was looking at the black team. It would be hard to defend against two groups, so I was already kind of expecting our loss, but something suddenly happened.
The sudden arrival of Arin and Roi who were running toward us made the black team hesitate. Agad na itinuro ni Zion sa kanila ang black team para makapag-focus kami kina Wannie.
Erica and Gon started running away from the two while red team continued approaching us.
“Let’s do this,” sabi ni Robert nang makarating din sila sa stone bridge.
Zion stepped forward and hid me behind him. I know he said I didn’t have to do anything, but I kind of feel guilty because I wasn’t contributing to the group.
“Go!” Robert yelled and both him and Wannie lunged at us.
Pilit na inaabot ni Wannie ang bracelets namin habang nagtutulakan naman sina Robert at Zion.
Their desperation sparked the competitiveness in me, and I started reaching for their bracelets, too. I held onto his hand tighter to make sure our bracelets wouldn’t be torn off, and quickly extended my arm to rip off theirs.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Wannie after she pulled their hands away, foiling my first attempt.
Sinubukan ko ulit abutin ang bracelet nila habang confused pa sila. She was able to sidestep again, but Zion immediately yanked Robert closer after realizing what I was doing.
“Now!” sigaw niya.
Dahil saglit na na-off balance si Robert ay nahatak niya rin si Wannie. Using that second of disorientation, I tugged the paper bracelet between them as hard as I could and it got ripped before they could react.
Halos sabay silang napabuntonghininga at napatingin sa kamay nila nang mapunit ang paper bracelet. They were immediately escorted out by the staff who were watching us from the sideline.
After a few seconds ay doon ko lang na-realize na nakaligtas kami at natalo namin ang isang group. I heaved a sigh of relief as I stared at the ripped paper bracelet on my hand.
“Pagod na agad ako,” I murmured.
Narinig ko ang mahinang paghalakhak ni Zion sa tabi ko. “But you did a good job. Akala ko matatalo na tayo.”
Doon ko lang din na-realize na magkahawak pa rin kami ng kamay. The embarrassment that I shoved at the back of my mind washed over me again.
I was never the type to initiate a physical contact nor someone who had been given a lot of it. My friends in college weren’t fond of it either, so being this close to someone was already a tall hurdle for me.
But thinking about it, those three liked initiating physical contact. Arin would pull or hug me out of nowhere. Si Roi naman, bigla-bigla nalang mang-aakbay. Zion wasn’t probably that kind of person, but because of his fear of heights, he’d cling to me whenever we had to cross the hanging bridge.
Nagulat ako nang bigla na lang bumungad ang mukha niya sa harapan ko. I didn’t realize he was talking to me.
“Let’s go?” he asked while gently tugging me and pointing at the other side of the stone bridge.
Sinundan ko naman ang tingin niya at napanganga sa nakita. Almost all of the groups were concentrated on the main space of Camp Juvenile. Halos magkagulo ro’n dahil naghahabulan ang bawat groups para ma-eliminate ang isa’t isa.
“Wait, hindi ba mas magandang magtago na lang?” tanong ko.
The competitiveness that was burning inside me earlier had been completely extinguished after seeing the chaos in front of us. Just thinking about going through another ripping battle was enough to drain my physical and mental strength.
He paused for a moment to ponder about my suggestion. “Hmm, puwede rin naman, lalo na at mukhang kaya na nilang dalhin ang team natin,” he said while looking at Arin and Roi.
The two looked like raging bulls who just attack without having a care in the world. They held each other’s hand to maximize their speed and ran toward the closest group.
Gold team was immediately eliminated since they got flustered at their attack. With Roi’s height and built, even I wouldn’t be able to react if I saw him charging at me at full speed. Maging si Arin ay nakakatakot lalo na at nakangiti lang siya habang umaatake.
Fit and sporty people are scary. Thank goodness we’re in the same team.
Nag-decide kami na magtago sa likod ng obstacle course kaya tumakbo kami papunta ro’n bago pa may makapansin sa amin.
We hid behind the inclined wall, and hoped nobody would find us until the time is up.
The madness that was happening behind us suddenly felt distant, and all I could hear was the deafening silence. Muli akong napatingin sa mga kamay namin. I wanted to let go of his, but I lost the timing earlier. Surely, it would be okay now since we didn’t need to run or protect the paper bracelets anymore. Besides, naco-conscious na ako dahil hindi rin siya nagsasalita.
I was about to say something when he heard a noise from our right. Pagtingin namin ay tumatakbo ro’n sina Brian at Yena. He shushed me and we observed in silence as the two got cornered by both orange and white team.
“You okay?!” pasigaw na tanong ni Brian kay Yena.
She was leaning against the tree trunk while Brian was right in front of her, protecting her from the four people trying to rip their bracelets. Yena nodded but she looked like she was about to pass out.
Ah, right. Les said she has a weak physical condition in general so Yena doesn’t really like strenuous challenges. No wonder she was paired with Brian. That way, she could be protected.
“Ah, pink team!”
I flinched after hearing a voice on our left side. Another group from white and blue team arrived, and they were determined to get us. After all, green and pink team were leading the rankings this week, so it was expected that we would get targeted.
Worse, they had the advantage. Because they had five paper bracelets, they could get “revive” as long as the bracelets around their wrists could be connected. That meant they had three lives. To defeat them, we had to tear the three connecting bracelets altogether.
“Sorry, Zion, mukhang hindi kayo ang mananalo ngayon,” Oliver from white team taunted.
“Heh? Sigurado ka ba?”
Naramdaman ko ang paghigpit ng hawak niya sa kamay ko. He slowly guided me behind him, but both groups attacked us before I could completely hide our bracelets.
Without thinking, I turned toward him and placed our hands between us, as if we were hugging. Halos mapasinghap ako nang ma-realize ko ang ginawa ko. I was about to get away from him, but he suddenly wrapped his free left hand around my shoulders, and quickly turned sideways.
“Shit,” he muttered.
I was pinned to the inclined wall while Zion was shielding me and the bracelets with his body. My face was buried between his neck and left shoulder, and I instantly got flustered after realizing that there was practically no space between us.
“Come on, hatakin mo ‘yung bracelets nila!”
“Wait, hindi ko maabot!”
“Faster! Baka maabutan tayo ng teammates nila!”
“Ito na, saglit!”
I felt hand trying to squeeze through between our bodies, and that was the moment I snapped out of my disorientation.
All I wanted that time was to escape.
Cherry from blue team started tugging our bracelets, and as a last-ditch effort, I reached for theirs, too, while Zion was busy keeping the others’ hands away from us.
Both of our bracelets got ripped as we pulled them at the same time.
“Pink team, out,” the staff watching us announced. “Blue team, you only have one life left.”
It turned out I broke two of their connecting bracelets. Sayang. Sana pala hinila ko pa nang mas malakas para pare-pareho kaming out na.
“Whoa, Elix, medyo nakakatakot ka pala,” Cherry commented as she re-attached hers and Cenon’s paper bracelets.
Angeli suddenly snickered, prompting us to look at her. “Look, look, magka-holding hands pa rin sila.”
Bigla akong napabitiw sa kamay ni Zion nang marinig ko ‘yon. On the other hand, he looked unfazed.
“Hindi lang ‘yan makapaniwala na natalo sila,” sabi ni Oliver habang nakangiti.
Cenon stretched his free arm with an impassive expression on his face. “Well, at least, we eliminated a group from one of the top teams.”
“Alright, next target ay sina Arin at ang green team!”
The four started running away and we were left alone.
“Lahat ng natanggal ay kailangang pumunta sa main pavilion,” sabi ng staff kaya wala kaming nagawa kung hindi ang maglakad papunta ro’n.
It felt disappointing that we got eliminated, but at least I didn’t have to suffer again. Pero nanlamig ako nang ma-realize kong may isa pang hindi magandang mangyayari.
Napatingin ako kay Zion. I wasn’t allowed to talk back to him this time. For sure, marami ‘tong sasabihin sa pagkatalo namin.
“It’s a pity we didn’t survive,” said Zion after a few seconds of silence while we were walking toward the main pavilion.
“At least, we shortened blue team’s life by two,” I calmly replied. At buhay pa naman sina Roi at Arin. Kaya na nila ‘yan.”
He didn’t say anything afterwards which was quite strange. I was expecting him to tease me the moment he opened his mouth. Lalo lang tuloy akong kinabahan. Ano na naman kaya ang balak ng isang ‘to?
I glanced at his direction, but halted after seeing something. His ears were bright red.
Napalingon siya sa akin nang mapansing huminto ako sa paglalakad. “Bakit? May injury ka ba?”
“N-nothing,” I replied while catching up with him.
And as we resumed walking, I realized that someone as unbothered and shameless as him could get flustered in some situations, too.