The skin near my eye swelled itching in pain after the emotionless lady threaded every unwanted follicle of my eyebrows-- she didn't turn a hair every time I closed my eyes gasping in awe. Ichigo on my right side was laughing while putting on eyeliner. The lady started putting some on me too, starting with layers of cream and powder. She filled my brows with a small brush touched on a cork eyeshadow then, eyeliner and mascara that made me teary eyed, blush ons... I had no idea what I looked like. Ichigo said it would be a surprise. My face was getting thicker and heavier.
"Beauty is gained through pain." She was putting a soft, dusty baby pink lipstick that matches her alabaster skin tone. Actually, anything looked good on her.
"You mean 'enhanced' beauty."
She took a peach coral lipstick in a pouch, came to me and started dabbing. "You have beautiful teal eyes, but your bangs were in the way, you were like a talking Shih Tzu in eyeglasses. Never thought you were human after all." She grunted clipping my long bangs to the side, and then turned to pick a dress I would wear in that mountain she gave me. "Okay, wear these." She held up a blue knee length sleeveless polyester maxi dress with black lace floral top, and a pair of nude three or four inches pointed shoes matching hers.
"Are you sure? Is... isn't that too short? It's like putting lipstick on a pig. And I don't want people to see my oxter. I think I'll just wear jeans and--"
"What the hell are you saying? Every girl fantasizes a princess look. Not a midnight-Cinderella." She chided and forced me into wearing it. "There." She pushed me towards the mirror.
I walked slowly and was dumbfounded when I saw myself. Tilting my head side to side, swiveling, staring and examining every detail, blinking a few times, pouting my lips, I blasted, "I never thought I am a girl. It was like looking at a different person."
"What's with those puppy eyes? Do you like it?" I looked at her through the mirror. She was wearing pearl embellished navy blue sleeveless crop top midi pencil dress, showing her smokin' lean figure and gigantic hips.
"Well, I don't have that monster body."
She chuckled. "Oh you! Unfortunately, you are a flat board." Chloe said pulling my hair back.
"I don't know if you're being rude and a bully or just being honest."
"Well, I'm being honest and a reliable friend." She looked at me and gave me a squeeze. "Your brother will get over it. You will. You both should learn how to enjoy your lives. You have all the time in the world. Life goes on, dummy."
The car stopped at the entry accosted with red carpet and standing sprays. The car door was held open by a man dressed like those of chauffeurs, and Ichigo's long legs finally stretched to the soft carpet. I followed her to the vestibule enchanted by chandeliers and flowers. The carpeted hall clouded my ears with the seductive sweet sound of a human voice trapped in brass; the sound of bebop tenor sax took me into a different world combined with the adventurous juggling touch of piano. A big fountain surrounded by small spotlights gathered my attention as a crowd of people dancing in their elegant gowns and tuxedos flooded the place, some were even taking videos. Another group of men with strings were standing next to the stage, and when the music ended; they tapped their bows rhythmically on their music strands as others applauded with their hands. Maybe they would be performing too. There was a lady in a small group, dressed in a sparkling red gown holding a huge harp. Some people were shaking her hand. I wished to hear her perform too.
"Wow! I didn't know this place exists inside the campus."
"Me neither. And I just realized the performers are actually from the school's music club. I had no idea they are this good. I thought the real Charlie Parker was playing the sax." She looked at me and straightened my back. "Don't forget that it's not always about the looks, sometimes it's about the attitude. Poise. Stop slouching." She said snapping her fingers on almost every word. "You need to have every seductive aura if you want Charles to see how gorgeous you are tonight."
Ichigo's phone rang, "We're here. Where are you guys?" She paused and looked around, and said "Okay." She grabbed my hand as we walked towards the carpeted spiral stairs. The second floor was also crowded with groups of people chatting. "Talent scouts." She said.
"People looking for people. And they are everywhere. The gymnasium must be somehow connected to this building."
There was a big door which looked like an entrance to a movie house. Ichigo slowly opened it, and brandished a concert hall inside. I actually never had been in one; just saw it on some brochure. The wide podium was sitting at the core of the big room, a man was standing in the middle of it and upon seeing him, Ichigo became elated with excitement. He was saying something I failed to catch on, which the crowd applauded with a soft chuckle.
Ichigo pointed to the far left near the other big door, Chelsea was waving at us. Ichigo gave her a smooch on the cheek. When our eyes met, she asked in a whisper, "Is this Sammy?"
"What do you think?" Ichigo nodded grinning as we launched ourselves to seats next to her.
"You look very very different." She said in astonishment. "You look stunning." I squeezed my hand in bashfulness. I was not used to such words.
The place had hollowness in it, making our conversation sound empty but loud. Every thud made a ringing in my ear, even a cough from someone seats away sounded so loud but soft, that even the speaker knew where it was coming from. The speaker's voice sounded differently though- louder and clearer in many other ways.
"So far so good VP. So what did we miss?" Ichigo asked keeping her voice down.
"You missed some introductions from our beloved student council President."
Ichigo looked at me, bottom lip jutting out and worded "Sorry". I replied lifting a shoulder. "I can't believe you guys invited Vladimir Blavatnik. That's freakin' Blavatnik of SunRise! Wow! How did you do that?"
"Well, our pres wanted to make some good impressions from his grandfather, so we surveyed our seniors regarding their future plans. Since most of them have their eyes on business-- knowing the majority are already businessmen, they requested an invitation for Mr. Blavatnik. We're lucky. He is actually very enthusiastic about it. And Charles's father knew him unsurprisingly well."
"What about the others?"
"We also invited some noteworthy guests for them, like Josephine Hunt and Zasha Lee of Purple Diamond for our future designers, and of course etcetera. Also talent scouts."
Another applause oscillated in the big room.
"You guys are really serious about this. By the way, where's Kyle?"
"Oh, he's with Charles, Tasuki and Lester on the front."
Chelsea shrugged. "You don't know him?"
"Is he cute?" Chelsea and I rolled our eyes heavenward. "What?" She tittered. "I need a drink."
"Oh, you know we don't serve alcohol here, honey."
"Boring!" She hissed. She pulled me as she stood up.
"Where are you guys going?"
"My butt is hurting."
"You just came--" Chelsea sighed. "Okay, I'm going with you."
"What about Kyle?"
"Oh come on, he's not a baby."
Outside, the music changed to the soulful sound of vibrating strings. People were watching the performance below. There was this feeling like there was water in my ears, swallowing hard helped. Must be the lagging difference of sound perception inside the concert hall and here outside. A waiter came carrying a tray of joggling drinks. Chelsea took a glass.
We went to the museum-like part of the building. There was an art-exhibition going on. From the art club? The atmosphere in here was quiet, and mostly couples, or a group of boys debating their interpretations, or simply just art-loving individuals. There was a small group of men (in forties or fifties) discussing with a student, "A freshman. I've seen him before, had no idea he's a man of art." Chelsea said. "I guess you'll never know a talented man just by looking, you need to know the pathways of the puzzle in his mind to understand the world he's living. Geniuses sure live in a clandestine world."
"Can we speak informally?" Chloe suggested.
The painting was a dirty gray and white, illustrating an old man sitting with his head and one arm resting in a ragged wood box, opened palm. On his feet was an empty can. Maybe a beggar. Maybe dead. The painting was giving a somber feeling, due to its dull, dark color, broken houses, destroyed buildings, dark heavy clouds with flashes of lightning, and drops of rain. On the bottom part of the picture was a burnt book swimming in red mud. Just the words '...only him...' could be read.
Atheistic? Political in nature? War? Related to education? Economy?
For me, it was a picture of what you see outside the orphanage. The desolated Region 56. The more I thought about the orphanage, the longer I could keep my eyes off the painting.
There were others beautifully made that could not be left ignored. I couldn't believe students of my age drew this. What took my interest was the painting of a big old tree. No leaves, no flowers. It seemed dead with snow on its feet.
The feelings of nostalgia brought me back to my nightmares. A face I couldn't remember, dress with blood, and that feeling I always had whenever I remember her. The cold of winter.
A man stood beside me, hands in his pockets, eyes on the painting. Dark brown mussed up casual hair (using hands and fingers to brush it--or maybe he didn't care at all-- a messy bed head look) with bangs almost covering his thick brows, and an aquiline nose with a very prominent bridge-- he was the guy who saved my butt once. It was during the last days of summer, I recalled, three boys were heckling me; one clutching me from behind, one stuffing fist-sized marshmallows in my mouth while the other was trying to unbutton my uniform. Yes, boys like these existed in school. I was wildly screaming my lungs out, but the gooey pile didn't help-- it was choking me to death. My crying only made it worse, it made it hard to swallow and scream for help. He then came splashing us with two cans of soda-- he was like Father Emmanuel sprinkling holy water that time-- he said he was sleeping and we disturbed him. The boys walked away booing, then he threw the empty cans to me as he fled. It was a sticky memory.
"Soul of Winter." He mumbled. It was the title of the painting, by Hero Nakamura.
My cheeks warmed, gathering some courage to start a conversation and asked hesitantly, "Is this yours?"
I heard silence, and embarrassment rushed through me, I suddenly wanted to run-- swiftly. Then his words came out, "Do you like winter?"
I thought hard, reflecting. "Isn't it sad?" I asked, unsure of what I was saying. "Do you?"
"It's peaceful and quiet. Just by looking at it, it makes me want to sleep."
I chortled. Suddenly, Ichigo came and blindfolded his eyes. They know each other? The guy gripped her hands, and said "Nicholas."
Ichigo's arms extended into an embrace. "I thought for a second you'd call me by my first name, Tasuki."
What? No way! Tasuki?! My cheeks flamed hotter; I wanted to hide this time. I couldn't stop my lips from twitching. With such a nice introduction we had before in his house, I had always thought I would never be able to face him.
Ichigo sniggered when Tasuki brushed her hands. "Tasuki, this is Sam Mizuki." She introduced. My chest suddenly fell to my stomach. "And Sammy, this is our Tasuki Takahara"
It was just a fleeting glance but, it was the first time I saw his face clearly, and the first time our eyes officially met. My knees weakened when we did, and realized I couldn't stop myself from staring. I thought I saw cat's eyes back then, but it was actually hazel eyes. They were fiery with flecks of gold.
"Where is that friend of yours you're not telling me about?"
Tasuki turned to face her and looked around, and nodded towards the guy approaching us with Chelsea prancing. Ichigo licked her lips. A muscle on Tasuki's face moved and a thin dimple over his perfect five o'clock shadow appeared when Ichigo turned to see his friend.
The guy was tall with muscles bulking in his well-fitting tuxedo, had clean heavy stubble that added attractiveness to his gleaming smile. Neutral skin, natural brown hair and thick brows that gave more life to his gunmetal eyes. There was no way Ichigo would not fall for this guy, the girls around the room said so.
"Oh, Greek nose." She whispered.
Finally he greeted with his deep manly voice, "Hello."
Chelsea looked at me, "Lester Hellewege, this is Sammy, Sam Mizuki." Then shifted to Ichigo, "And this is Chloe Nicholas." Ichigo just stared at him. A tight-lipped smile flashed on his face forming crow's feet around his eyes, and he bowed.
"No alcohol?" Tasuki asked.
He shook his head and laughed. "Too bad. All sweets."
"We can drink somewhere after this." Ichigo proposed.
"Do you drink, Sammy?" Chelsea asked. I shook my head chuckling. All laughed, not Tasuki. "We'll take care of you."
Two teachers called Tasuki. He lightly pushed Ichigo on the curve of her back with his palm. Must be because they had known each other since childhood, or maybe more. Or maybe it was just me. The teachers were smiling when he came, even tapping his back and shaking his hand. Lots of girls glanced over at him, even men. Just what are these people, really? They're not celebrities, are they?
"How'd you know Tasuki?" Ichigo held her handbag to her front. She placed her foot in front of the other, pointing at the hunky man. Chelsea saw this and bit her lip.
"Uh, we met in Region 122 six years ago. His grandfather knows my father, they're business partners actually. Since I started my own business--"
"Oh, business? What kind?" She asked.
"Scrap metals." Both Ichigo and Chelsea nodded with delight. "Yeah... I eventually met Charles." He hummed, "Where are you from?"
"I'm from 207."
He inhaled, expanding his chest, and said exhaling "Ah, that explains the accent. They said you were a model?" Ichigo rubbed her forehead biting back a grin, and then nodded.
Chelsea cleared her throat and grabbed my arm. "Uhm, Sam and I should probably go and eat."
"Sure, sure." He answered. Ichigo nodded.
"Let's just let them get to know each other." Chelsea prodded.
We went to the buffet area. Upon entering, the delicious smell made my stomach grumble wildly, as if I had not taken anything for days. My eyes were welcomed with the finest cuts of fresh seafood, meats, nuts and berries, out-of-season fruits and vegetables, caviars, steaming soups, and colorful Hors d'oeuvres.
Chelsea took slice of shrimp and pesto pizza with goat cheese and a slice of chicken breast sprayed with gold paint.
"Is that even edible?" I asked.
"Yes, it is." She laughed. "Watch out for calories." She took a spoonful of spinach artichoke dip and matched it with crostini with tomato toppings and some rose apple pies.
I headed for some desserts, which most of them were left untouched. I grabbed a chocolate raspberry cupcake and a black forest meringue cupcake. Their Sichuan red oil wontons and black vinegar sauce took me to heaven, as well as the roasted sweet potato rounds with guacamole and bacon and that beet salad on sticks. Just by looking at all these foods made me full, but looking at those cakes with sparkling glitters made my tummy turn. Are those even food?
I heard a commotion, then suddenly Chelsea's voice. "Hey! You're doing great."
And a familiar laugh. "We do, Chels. Where are the others?"
Charles's voice immediately pulled me to a realization, I am a girl tonight. Poise. Stop slouching.
A girl dressed in a white backless pencil dress studded with small diamonds came to me, grabbing my hand that was holding the blueberry Zucchini smoothie and splashing it onto her face and dress accidentally on purpose.
Suddenly, she was screaming blue murder.