I had always been a fan of crime novels and mystery series, so learning that the next challenge would be about that genre kind of lifted my mood. At least, magkakaroon na ako ng pambawi mula sa kahihiyang naranasan ko mula sa horror house challenge.
“Buti pa kayo nakatulog kagabi,” sabi ni Brian nang makaupo kaming apat sa isang bakanteng lamesa.
“Si Elix lang ang nakatulog nang maayos,” chuckled Roi. “Parang mga 9:30 p.m., bagsak na siya ro’n sa bean bag, eh. Ako mga 2:30 a.m. siguro.”
“Ang aga,” Yena murmured while sipping her morning coffee. “Pero buti nakatulog ka kahit maingay sa paligid.”
“Napagod ‘yan kakasigaw sa loob ng horror house,” sabay tawa ni Roi kaya sinamaan ko siya ng tingin. “Knockout agad.”
I remained silent while drinking my coffee but I was already chiding Roi inside my head. Ayaw ko na ngang maalala ang mga nangyari pero ang dami niya pa ring sinasabi. Nakakahiya pa lalo dahil hindi naman namin ka-group ang mga kasabay naming kumain.
Fortunately, the topic shifted to the next challenge when Brian mentioned it.
“Mukhang may advantage kayo this time,” he said. “Three of you have written crime and mystery stories.”
“Oh, wow,” remarked Yena.
“Ah, puro fantasy writers pala kayo sa group n’yo!” sabay turo ni Roi sa kanilang dalawa.
“Yup. I do write horror stories but it’s still a bit different compared to crime novels,” Brian added.
“Oh-hoh.” Roi grinned widely as he crossed his arms in front of them. “Mukhang matataasan namin kayo sa ranking this time.”
Huh. I couldn’t believe it. He was starting to sound like Zion with that kind of smugness and competitiveness.
“Ah, right. You said Elix writes mystery and fantasy stories,” sabi naman bigla ni Yena habang nakatingin kay Brian. Her gaze shifted to me. “He’s your fan.”
Naramdaman ko ang pag-init ng mukha ko. I mean, these writers were amassing millions of reads per story and had their solid readership in the community. They were respected because of their well-written crafts, and I felt grateful, embarrassed, and pressured all at the same time after knowing that they were reading mine.
“R-right. Sabi niya nga,” mahina kong sagot.
“Oh, so you already know. Then, alam mo rin bang—”
She wasn’t able to finish her sentence because Brian wrapped his right arm around her shoulders and covered her mouth with his right hand.
“You seem talkative today, baka maubos na energy mo mamaya,” he said while looking weirdly at Yena. Agad namang bumaling ang tingin niya sa amin at ngumiti. “Sige, mauna na kami. Magdi-discuss pa kami tungkol sa challenge. Bye!”
He was still covering Yena’s mouth while they were getting up, which kinda looked funny. I didn’t expect them to be that close after a week of being together, but maybe it was easier because they had the same vibe. And they looked cute together.
“Balik na rin ba tayo?” tanong ni Roi.
“Sige. Bibilhan ba natin sila ng kape?”
“Hmm, sige. Parang dragon pa naman si Zion kapag hindi nakapag-kape,” sabay tawa niya.
We spent a bronze coin for two cups of coffee and walked back to our cabin, but something seemed strange.
Habang naglalakad kami pabalik ay ang daming production staff na naglalakad. Usually, hindi sila nagpapakita dahil baka mahagip sila sa cameras, but this time, it felt like they were intentionally showing themselves. Isa pa, wala silang specific na pinupuntahan. They were just loitering around writers, which means . . .
“Parang ang daming tao?” Roi remarked.
Agad kong hinila ang braso ni Roi at nagsimulang tumakbo. The green team must have seen them too and they went back a few minutes earlier than us.
“Wait, ‘yung kape—!”
“It has already started,” I said.
“The challenge. It has already started.”
Halos ¾ na lang ng cup ang natira sa kapeng bitbit naming at may mga mantsa na rin kami sa kamay. Hot coffee pa man din ang pinili namin kaya medyo ang hapdi ng palad ko.
Pagdating namin sa cabin ay agad kaming pumasok sa kani-kaniya naming kuwarto. Tinapik ko ang balikat ni Arin para gisingin siya. Fortunately, she was a light sleeper and immediately woke up. Narinig ko rin ang pagsigaw ni Roi mula sa kabilang kuwarto at ang pamimilit niyang gisingin si Zion.
“Anong meron?” she groggily asked while rubbing her eyes.
“Start na ng challenge. Today’s theme is mystery.”
Lumabas naman agad ako at muling sumilip sa bintana. Almost everyone seemed oblivious and was just glancing strangely at the staff, but I was sure this was related to the challenge.
I tried observing their movements, but they were just aimlessly wandering around the camp. I thought I was just reading too much into it, but then something caught my eyes.
The staff were always wearing black shirts and black trousers so we could tell them apart from the writers, yet something was different today. The hems of their sleeves had different colors.
Sakto namang dumating sa sala ang tatlo kaya agad ko silang nilingon. “Find the one with the pink lining on their sleeves!”
Pagkasabi ko no’n ay tumakbo ako palabas para simulan ang paghahanap.
Una kong tiningnan ang mga staff na malapit sa cabin pero hindi pink ang kulay ng dulo ng sleeves nila. One had red on her left sleeve and orange on her right. Wait, does that mean--
“I think two teams need to form a group.”
Napatalon at napasigaw ako nang marinig ko ang boses ni Zion sa likuran ko. Muntik pa akong matalisod nang humarap ako sa kanya dahil sa sobrang gulat. What irked me was him trying to suppress a grin as if he was already expecting my reaction.
“Don’t sneak up on me like that!” I admonished him while still trying to calm myself down.
His controlled smile grew larger in satisfaction. “Sorry, bad habit.”
Sinamaan ko siya ng tingin pero agad din kaming napatigil nang marinig namin ang pagsigaw ni Roi ng mga pangalan namin mula sa obstacle course area.
“Tara na,” he said and he started running.
Tumakbo na rin ako patungo ro’n habang nakita ko naman si Arin na papunta rin doon mula sa cabins malapit sa campfire area.
“Anong kulay?” halos pasigaw na tanong ni Zion habang tumatakbo kami.
Muling napatingin si Roi sa staff na sa kasalukuyan ay hinaharangan niya. “Pink at Silver!” he yelled back.
Zion suddenly halted and changed direction while holding my right arm. He glanced at me and smiled. “Silver team, it is.”
Muli kaming tumakbo, but this time, papunta sa cabin ng silver team. I glanced at him and huffed in annoyance. I was about to say that we should go to their cabin when Roi yelled their team, but he got ahead of me. Parang ang labas tuloy ay siya ang unang nakaisip no’n.
“Just so you know, I deduced it first,” I muttered as I pulled my arm away.
I could feel the veins on my forehead bulging upon seeing his innocent look, as if he didn’t have any idea of what I was talking about. At the same time, pakiramdam ko, kapag ako ang unang nainis ay ako rin ang talo, kaya sinubukan ko ulit na kalmahin ang sarili ko.
Pagdating namin sa cabin ng silver team ay hinatak agad ni Zion si Michael sabay sabing, “Sorry, part of the challenge.”
Hindi na rin nakapagsalita si Michael nang dumating si Roi. The two took him by force while Arin and I told his three teammates—Ria, Sunny, and Sayuri—about the challenge. Agad naman silang sumunod matapos marinig ang explanation namin at tumakbo kami patungo sa main pavilion.
As expected, Ms. Hanna was there, waiting for the us to figure out the challenge for today.
She welcomed us with a warm smile. “Congratulations! You’re the first group to deduce the first part of the challenge!”
A subtle smile escaped my lips. It had been a while since we became first at something. Nakaka-miss din pala.
Our team names were displayed on the huge monitor, and we got an additional five points for being first. Maging ang silver team ay may incentive dahil ka-group namin sila kahit hindi nila na-figure out ang nangyari bago namin iyon ipaliwanag.
If my memory was correct, he was an erotic romance writer. Sina Ria, Sunny at Sayuri naman ay teen fiction at romance din ang mga sinusulat.
“Ang galing, naisip n’yo agad na may ganito,” dagdag ni Sunny.
Roi grinned proudly and shifted his gaze toward me. Nagulat ako nang bigla niya akong inakbayan at hinarap sa kanila. “Syempre, ka-team namin si Elix, eh.”
I was touched by his words, but at the same time, embarrassed by his actions. Isa pa, he was tall, so his arms were literally around my neck. Ang bigat pa man din ng braso niya at medyo nasasakal na rin ako.
Sasabihan ko na dapat siya pero bigla namang tinapik ni Zion ang braso niya. “You’re going to choke her,” he said.
“Ay shit, sorry Elix!” sabay tanggal ni Roi ng braso niya sa akin.
Alright, I knew I should be thankful, but instead, I narrowed my eyes at him. He shouldn’t be talking when he did the same thing while we were crossing the bridge before. Pero hindi na ako nag-retaliate dahil baka i-bring up niya pa ang mga nangyari sa horror house.
Isa-isa na ring nagsidatingan ang ibang teams dahil mukhang na-realize na rin nila na part iyon ng challenge ngayong araw. Pangalawang dumating ang orange-red team, followed by green-purple and blue-white teams. Halos sabay-sabay naman ang pagpasok ng mga natirang teams kaya hindi ko na na-track ang pagkakasunod-sunod.
“Since everyone is here already, let me explain today’s challenge!” Ms. Hanna announced. “Every group will roleplay a murder scene and you need to find the murderer among yourselves!”
Everyone was suddenly interested especially after hearing about the roleplay thing. Basically, we would choose our characters by luck, and we needed to determine the murderer correctly.
Every group would have two investigators—one for each team—and a murderer. The investigators are tasked to find the murderer among the group while the murderer just needs to confuse everyone and evade suspicions. But the catch was the two investigators weren’t allowed to point out the same murderer. Kumbaga paunahan sa paghanap sa kanya.
If the investigator found the correct murderer, his or her team would be awarded ten points, otherwise, it would be the murderer’s team to receive that. Ayos lang din kung same team ng murderer and investigator dahil either way, kailangan pa rin nilang mahanap o iwasan ang isa’t isa para magkaroon ng points. Kailangan nga lang ng investigator ng kabilang team na galingan ang paghahanap dahil iyon lang ang paraan para ma-receive nila ang ten points.
“Now that you already know the mechanics of the challenge, let’s go to Eden Plateau.”
Nang marinig namin ‘yon ay ang dami agad nag-comment dahil nandoon din sa lugar na ‘yon ang horror house. Don’t tell me . . .
“Hala, doon ba tayo sa horror house magrere-enact?”
“Okay lang ‘yon, may araw naman!”
“Dadaan ulit sa hanging bridge?!”
“Baka naman may iba pang building doon.”
Hindi ko alam kung dapat ba akong kabahan dahil baka sa horror house na naman nga ang setting o maging hopeful na baka may iba pa ngang buildings doon at hindi lang namin na-explore o nakita kagabi dahil madilim.
Dahil wala naman akong magagawa ay tahimik na lang akong sumunod habang naka-angkla naman ang braso ni Arin sa akin.
“Paano ba ‘yan, Elix, sa horror house daw ulit,” she teased. “What if ikaw ang naging investigator? Are you going to be okay?”
I cleared my throat to push down the creeping fear. “O-of course. Maliwanag naman,” sabi ko kahit na nagsimula nang manlamig ang mga labi ko.
Pagkarating namin sa harapan ng hanging bridge ay naunang tumawid sina Ms. Hanna at ang kasama niyang mga staff. Agad namang sumunod ang ibang teams. I was about to tell them that we need to cross the bridge quickly, too, but I realized something.
Mabilis akong napalingon sa direksyon ni Zion. His face was as white as a sheet, but he immediately put an unbothered façade when he saw me looking at him.
“What?” he asked in a defensive tone.
“I’m not saying anything,” I returned.
“Your smirk says otherwise.”
“Hoy Zion, Elix, tara na!” sigaw ni Roi. Nasa harap na pala sila ni Arin ng bridge.
“Tara na raw,” sabay turo ko sa kanila.
He heaved a sigh. “You know, you’re really obvious when you’re making fun of me.”
I scoffed in return. “Back at you.”
“Well then . . .”
Nagulat ako nang pumuwesto siya sa likuran ko at hinawakan niya ako sa magkabilang-balikat. I turned my head and saw his taunting smile.
I groaned in frustration. “Oh, not this again.”
He steered me toward the bridge and his grip on my shoulders got tighter. “I’ll be counting on you again, Elix.”