The writers were getting excited as Ms. Hanna started explaining the challenge, while I was grimacing at the idea. “It is a race to raise someone’s heart rate,” she said. “With wrist-based monitors, we will measure two challengers’ initial heart rate, and the one with a bigger jump or increase in heart rate loses.” Basically, you had to raise the other challenger’s heart rate to win. They also said that only words could be used to fluster or make the opponent’s heart flutter, but they could also request for a minimal physical contact. Of course, consent was a must. Bago sumalang ay itatanong ng staff kung okay ang challenger sa physical contact. If one of them said no, then automatic na wala. Kapag pareho namang okay sa kanila ay may tig-isa silang turn para ro’n pero kamay lang ang puwedeng hawakan. Most of them were already beaming, looking around to find their targets, but some were clearly uncomfortable, including me. Miracle na nga na nakakausap ko ang teammates ko at iba pang writers dahil mas sanay at gusto ko talagang mag-isa, but for this challenge, we had to interact with other writers other than our respective teammates. Idagdag pa na awkward ako sa mga taong hindi ko naman nakakausap. The only team I could probably be at ease was green team. The challenge would take place after lunch kaya bumalik ang bawat team sa kanya-kanya nilang cabins para mag-strategize. “So, anong plano natin?” tanong ni Arin habang nakatingin kay Zion. It kind of miffed me when the two automatically looked at him when asking for our plan of action. Parang naging de-facto leader tuloy siya kahit hindi naman. “Well, we just need to target the ones who are either uncomfortable with you, or those who like you,” he remarked. “Wannie likes you, right?” Roi flinched when Zion looked at him. “Luh.” “Kunwari pa ‘di niya alam,” singit ni Arin. “I-challenge mo ang red team through Wannie. Ikaw, Arin? How about Oliver from white team?” “Huy, gagi, baka ako ‘yung matalo! ‘Di ko kaya makipagtitigan sa gano’n kaguwapo.” “May crush siya ro’n, baka atakihin ‘yan sa puso,” ganti naman ni Roi. “Okay, we don’t want that.” “Excuse me, guwapo siya, okay, pero hindi ko siya crush!” “Si Cenon na lang ng blue team,” suggested Roi. “Mahiyain ‘yon eh, for sure kakabahan ‘yon kapag pinili mo.” Zion held his chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Hmm, that may be a good move. Sige, siya na lang ang i-challenge mo.” Sabay-sabay naman silang napatingin sa akin kaya medyo napaatras ako. “W-what?” “You know who to target, right?” tanong niya. Napakunot ang noo ko. Bakit parang alam na agad nila kahit wala akong idea kung sino ang tinutukoy nila. “Sino?” He curiously looked at me as if I just asked a stupid question. Medyo nakaka-offend pero sinubukan kong manatiling kalmado. I tried recalling people whom I could beat in this challenge, and someone suddenly came into mind. “S-si Brian ba?” mahina kong tanong. Brian was a fan, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough reason for me to win. Madalas kapag nakita mo ang idolo mo ay magpa-panic ka at ma-o-overwhelm, but Brian seemed to be not that kind of fan. Zion’s lips curled into a cunning smile. “Correct. I think you can win against him quite easily.” “Oohh, sabagay,” sabay ngisi rin ni Arin. “Ikaw, Zion? Sinong target mo?” tanong ni Roi. “Hmm. I want to get points from orange team since they are leading.” Napaisip naman ako sa sinabi niya. If I remembered correctly, the members were Ina, Zey, Pia, and Raiza. Right. We encountered Ina and Zey during the first day, and Ina said she was a fan of his. “So, it’s Ina?” I asked and he nodded. Roi’s eyes narrowed. “Wait, bakit si Ina?” “She said she’s a fan of mine,” he casually responded. “Ay, wow, bigatin naman pala ang fan mo!” exclaimed Arin. “Isa siya sa pinakasikat na teen fiction writers, ha!” He shrugged, seemingly disinterested. “No idea. I don’t read teen fiction novels.” Pagkatapos niyang i-discuss ang strategies namin ay nagpaalam sina Roi at Arin para mag-lunch. Dahil hindi pa naman ako gutom ay nag-stay ako sa cabin. Meanwhile, Zion was busy thinking about the challenge, muttering to himself. Ayaw ko rin namang tumambay sa porch dahil baka makita ko si Brian. I didn’t want to get awkward with him before the challenge could start. In the end, sinubukan ko na lang dagdagan ang nasulat kong chapters sa story ko. Around 1 p.m. ay pinapunta ulit kami sa main pavilion para sa challenge. There were chairs prepared for us and in the middle were two high oak chairs facing each other, seemingly similar to those of royal seats. Muling in-explain ni Ms. Hanna ang mechanics nang mag-settle ang lahat sa kanya-kanya naming upuan. Some were clutching their chests, trying to calm down and steady their heartbeats. Medyo kinakabahan din ako dahil present ang lahat, but I think I can manage. “Let’s start, shall we?” A staff placed a fishbowl in front of her and she randomly picked a colored ball. Halos lahat kami ay napatingin sa direksyon ng orange team nang itaas ni Ms. Hanna ang bolang napili niya. “Our first challenger is from orange team,” she announced. “Any volunteer?” Nagtinginan sina Pia, Ina, Zey, at Raiza habang ganoon din ang ginawa naming apat. Our plan would be ruined if Ina volunteered. Baka kasi hindi niya piliin si Zion. Pero agad ding napawi iyon nang tumayo si Pia. She gracefully walked toward the center and greeted Ms. Hanna. The upper part of her lustrous black hair was loosely tied in a messy updo. Suot niya ang orange shirt na nagsisilbing uniform ng team nila. I thought orange-colored shirts were too striking, but it suited her despite her cool demeanor. As expected, I was drawn to her presence. Pia was the first writer I admired from the writing site. She was years older than me, but I had always wanted to know more about her and befriend her. Nakausap ko rin siya before pero as her reader at noong nagsisimula pa lang ako. I was certain she wouldn’t remembered me, but in a way, she was my mentor, and seeing her up-close was such an honor. She writes slice of life novels that mostly tackle about familial relationships, friendships, and personal struggles, sometimes laced with romantic aspects. But what made them different was how wholesome they were. Kung mayroon mang explicit scenes ay implied lang at hind isa romance naka-focus ang buong kuwento. Maybe that was why her works were the only “romance” stories I could read. “So, Pia, who would you like to challenge?” She smiled at the question. May iilang nag-iwas ng tingin. Pia had a strong presence even though she had this calm air around her. If there was a chance she’d pick me, I’d instantly lose. I would surely get flustered because I was a fan. But I think everyone already knew who she was going to pick. “Hmm.” Her gaze shifted to where the yellow team was. “Of course, Jean.” Tumayo si Jean at naglakad papunta sa gitna. Jean was a romance writer. I wasn’t familiar with her stories because of her genre, but I knew her through Pia. Ang alam ko ay close sila dahil isa siya sa iilang nire-replyan ni Pia sa social media. Contrary to Pia, Jean was wearing her own clothes: a denim jumper shorts with a white shirt underneath. Instead of wearing the yellow uniform, she donned a yellow bandana to represent her team color instead. The two settled in the chairs after the staffs gave them the wrist monitors, which were connected to the huge screen behind them. “Both chose no physical contact,” Ms. Hanna declared. “Now, let the challenge begin!” Their initial bpms were displayed on the screen: 78 for Pia and 81 for Jean. Mukhang normal naman ang simula nila. Pia crossed her legs and rested her chin on her right hand. She suddenly gave Jean a heartfelt smile and almost everyone gasped when Jean’s heart rate jumped to 102 bpm. “Luh, pati ako bumilis tibok ng puso,” komento ni Roi kaya napatingin ako sa kanya. “Same,” dagdag naman ni Arin habang nakahawak sa dibdib niya. Meanwhile, Zion’s face remained impassive. Bumalik ang atensyon ko sa dalawa at nakangiti pa rin si Pia sa kanya. Jean snickered. “Stop smiling!” “Oh, so you do get flustered with just a smile,” teased Pia. “Of course. Mas maganda ka kaya kapag nakangiti.” That comment of hers seemed to excite Pia as her heart rate also rose to 98. Maging ako ay napahawak sa magkabilang pisngi ko habang pinapakinggan ang sunud-sunod na compliments nila sa isa’t isa. There was this warm feeling inside me that was growing as I watched them tease each other, although they seemed to be genuine with their words, too. “Time’s up!” “I won,” sabi ni Pia habang naka-peace sign. She recorded 99 bpm while Jean’s went up to 109. Since mas maliit ang difference ng initial at final heart rate ni Pia ay siya ang nanalo. Pagkatapos no’n ay si Pia ang pumili ng susunod na team mula sa fishbowl. Dahil siya ang nanalo ay siya rin ang may choice na pumili kung sino sa team na nabunot niya ang susunod na challenger. Halos manigas ako sa kinauupuan ko nang tumingin siya sa akin. “Elix,” she announced, and then she smiled at me. “Pick your target well.” Napatingin ang lahat sa akin kaya bigla akong kinabahan. I wanted to tell them not to stare at me because it was making me nervous, but I didn’t have the courage to do that. Huminga ako nang malalim habang naririnig ko ang pagch-cheer sa akin nina Roi at Arin. “Hinga ka pa nang malalim,” bulong ni Zion dahil siya ang katabi ko. “Don’t mind the spectators.” Sinunod ko naman siya at pagkatapos no’n ay isang malalim na buntonghininga ang pinakawalan ko. I could feel my heart slowing down now as I focused my attention on my teammates. Dahan-dahan akong tumayo at muling tumingin sa tatlo para muling kumalma. Zion nodded at me and gave me a quick smile. “Do well, Elix.” I nodded back at him and marched toward the center. “Who’s your pick, Elix?” I glanced at green’s team direction. “Brian.” Mukhang hindi naman nila iyon in-expect dahil gulat ang expression sa mukha ni Brian. “Ay, patay tayo d’yan!” sigaw ni Lan habang tumatawa. “Wala na, talo na tayo.” Yena tapped Brian’s shoulder while suppressing a smile. I didn’t know she could smile like that. Mukhang comfortable na siya sa teammates niya ngayon. “Endure it for as long as you can,” she said to Brian. Kumaway naman si Lessy sa akin. “Please go easy on him, Elix.” Meanwhile, Brian looked embarrassed. He was averting my eyes while walking toward us. Bigla ko tuloy nakita ang sarili ko sa kanya dahil ganoon din siguro ang reaksyon ko kung ako ang napiling kalaban ni Pia. He said he was a fan of mine, so I guess it was understandable? Although, hindi pa rin ako makapaniwala hanggang ngayon na reader ko siya at hinahangaan niya ang pagsusulat ko. I suddenly felt bad because it seemed like I was exploiting it. Fortunately, we both picked no physical contact. Narinig ko ulit ang pagsigaw nina Arin kaya mabilis akong tumingin sa direksyon ng teammates ko. Zion even did a modest fist pump, which was honestly quite a surprise. Ikinabit sa amin ang wrist monitor at nakahinga ako nang maluwag dahil 73 bpm ang initial heart rate ko. Part of it must be because I was somehow comfortable with Brian. Nagulat naman ako nang makita kong 91 ang bpm niya. Was he okay? Nagtama ang mga mata namin and I was taken aback when I saw his ears turning bright red. I was feeling sorry again, but I steeled my nerves and renewed my resolve. I must win this challenge.