Chapter 1: The Invitation
On the afternoon of March 08, 2020, people had gathered inside a fancy hotel in New York City to celebrate their much-awaited reunion party. Speakers hanging on the ceiling boomed with pop music around the event hall. Colorful lights crazily blinked and flashed on their faces, hilariously blinding some of them. Young adults chattered merrily without end while others danced until they dropped.
The rest were eating at their respective round tables adorned with a decorative candelabra, lit candles, and a red flower arrangement. Plates clattered and drinking glasses tinkled at the sound of forks tapped against them. Some women took pictures of the sophisticated display when a male host came up the stage, easing the folds of his tuxedo. An event coordinator handed him a microphone and it made an audible screech.
The music stopped on cue and he professionally stood straight with a wide smile. “Good evening, everyone! Are you all having fun?”
Loud cheers followed before it faded into the background.
“That cheer was superb! First of all, we would like to thank each and every one of you for attending Crimson Hill University’s reunion party for our senior batch! Of course, without you handsome and beautiful people, this event wouldn’t have been possible.” The male host fished out a small card from his pocket, appearing to be his script. He briefly glanced to read it before flashing another smile towards the audience. “You guys wanna know who came up with this special prize? You were all informed about this, right?”
Rowdy noises filled the event hall from shouting, clapping, and howling.
“No, no! His or her identity remains a secret but our sponsor is generous enough to give out a clue. His or her name contains the letter ‘E’.”
The audience booed.
“Not much of a clue, eh?” The host chuckled quietly. “But as promised, we have 12 people who are very lucky to receive an invitation to . . . stay inside a five-star hotel!”
People squealed with their eyes sparkling with excitement.
“On your respective tables, you should be able to see a small letter hidden under your plates!” The host began laughing when the young adults at the dance floor ran back to their seats. “We only chose two groups of friends! Who are the lucky ones that will get the opportunity to sleep inside a luxurious hotel? The one who is behind this expensive prize is someone with the letter ‘E’, folks!”
A young lady checked under her plate. She smiled when a folded paper came into her view. As soon as she plucked it out, her other friends squealed harmoniously, causing her to flinch in her seat. Celebrating hyper-actively with her friends wasn’t her cup of tea, but there was one guy friend whom she would be happy to do it with.
“Where is that teddy bear?” Taking the letter under his plate, she stood tall and turned to her friends who were huddled together with their back facing her. “’Scuse me, girls! I’ll go and fetch Theo.”
Theo was the name of her best friend. What was taking him so long to return? The young lady took long strides before exiting the event hall. She continued down the hallway, careful enough not to trip on her red stiletto heels. Once she spotted the men’s toilet, she lifted the hem of her slinky red dress and ran in a hurry.
“Theo! Get your ass out here!”
A twenty-six-year-old gentleman, who had finished lathering his hands with his sleeves rolled up, perked his head.
Theo was tall and slim. His body built was not that buff, but people could tell he was working out based on his manly arms and biceps. Women would often evaluate him as the cute guy next door once he stretched a friendly smile. His bluish-grey eyes were mesmerizing, to add.
He quickly dried his hands with a paper towel, threw it into a bin, and ran his fingers through his long, tousled black hair. Satisfied with the arrangement, he walked out of the men’s toilet to meet with her. But when he stepped out, she clashed against him harder than expected that she dived forward while he outbalanced himself and fell backward. Unluckily, she hit her head against the open door.
“That really hurt. . . .”
She moaned as she soothed her throbbing head. There was a sharp tingling sensation around her knees and elbows so she inspected it. No scratches. Still, she was grateful that instead of hitting the edge of the doorway, her head hit the sturdy door. Otherwise, she would have been severely injured.
Theo sat on his butt, winced for a second, and quickly glanced at her who tried to get up but failed.
“Faith!” He helped her to sit up as she leaned her back against the wall, away from the men’s toilet. “You okay?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine.” Faith responded with a sheepish laugh, rubbing her throbbing head.
He sighed. “Why are you looking for me?”
“About that, I came here to show you this.” She waved the letter in her hand with a smile. “We got lucky!”
His mouth fell open, not believing it for a second, but it was real. “Who else got lucky?”
“I’m not quite sure who they are. I left to find you,” she said, handing the letter to him. “Go on and check it out.”
He opened the folded paper and read the words written in red ink:
The name of this newly opened five-star hotel is Golden Hotel located at Long Island Beach. In this short vacation for 4 days, you will experience fun and games to play! Seek out adventures with your friends! Laugh and cry! Win more prizes and maybe some cash? The meeting place will be in this hotel’s lobby. See you on Friday at exactly 9 o’clock in the morning. All expenses are paid during your stay.
His eyes grew wide. A five-star hotel. This sponsor must be extremely rich to have their vacation expenses paid. Nevertheless, it was worth the shot. A short vacation for at least four days sounded thrilling for him.
“Sounds pretty good.” He looked at her with a smile. “I guess . . . this sponsor might surprise us with a program.”
“Like get invited to a talk show?” She raised an eyebrow. “With Jimmy Kimmel? James Corden? Jimmy Fallon?”
He casually shrugged his shoulders. “The only way to find out is to be there.”
Nodding in agreement, Faith tried to get up. Theo assisted her as she straightened her posture, wobbling a little as she did. Stiletto heels. Why on earth would some women wear such killer footwear?
“Can you walk? You kinda rammed your head against the poor door. I feel sorry for it.” Theo snickered, clamping his mouth as they walked down the hallway, and he earned a slap on his bicep.
Faith returned home in her village at Alexander. Her feet were aching badly after removing her stiletto heels by the doorstep. She cursed under her breath for wearing those killer heels. She should have brought with her a pair of slippers but she forgot about it. Theo had nagged her to death before that reunion party and true enough, he was right. A reddish blister had already formed when she checked her ankles.
She let out a heavy sigh. “This will burn really good. . . .”
“Faith, dear, is that you? Are you home?” A woman’s sweet voice echoed somewhere.
“I’m home, Mom!”
A woman in her mid-40s emerged from the kitchen. Her shoulder length black hair bounced in every step as she approached her daughter. Based on the wrinkles of her white, silky nightgown, she had gone to bed a few hours ago before waking up to wait for her. It was her mother’s force of habit in their household due to their occupations.
“It’s past midnight! You must be hungry. Have a little snack in the kitchen. I’ve made you an egg sandwich and filled you a glass of water.” Her sweetly mother smiled.
“You didn’t have to, Mom.” Smiling back, she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her mother. “I’m already twenty-six. I can make my own egg sandwich.”
“It’s the least I can do, honey. Besides, I know you’re tired.” Her mother pulled away before looking at her with a soft gaze. “Did you have fun with your friends? How did it go?”
“Yeah, it was fun,” she said, adjusting the strap of her small purse on her shoulder, “and that’s why I have something important to tell you and Dad when he wakes up.”
“Oh, really?” Her mother lifted a brow. “I hope it’s something worth hearing.”
“It is.” Faith briefly laughed. “My friends were literally screaming and jumping.”
“Seems like you have a long story to tell.” Her mother placed a hand behind her daughter, motioning her to go upstairs. “Go ahead and change your clothes first. Come back down once you’re done.”
When Faith began climbing up the stairs, her mother spotted the small blisters around her ankles. A small gasp escaped her lips. She immediately knew that her daughter had forgotten one thing to bring.
“Honey, you have blisters! Did you forget to bring a pair of slippers? Have that cleaned right away!”
“Sorry about that!” Faith glanced over her right shoulder and smiled in a sheepish way. She knew how her mother would always react that way whenever she and her father came home with questionable wounds and blisters. “Nothing serious happened at the party! No cops required!”
“Good. I’ll be waiting in the kitchen!” As soon as her daughter was out of sight, she sighed and walked towards the bathroom.
Faith entered her room and closed the door. Her room was very simple: painted in peach and white. Her things were neatly organized in their rightful places and not a speck of dust could be seen. Living with a clean freak mother prompted her to become one as well. Not to mention, her dad had very keen eyes. She mannered everything from them.
Wasting no more time, she walked towards her wardrobe and picked out her sleepwear: gray cotton shorts and a white plunging neckline shirt. She began undressing, throwing her purse on top of her bed. It took her less than 45 minutes to finish, including the removal of her makeup and putting bandages on her blisters. While for her long, naturally black hair, she left it as it was. Before she exited her room, she headed over to her bed and grabbed her purse, taking out the letter she had received earlier.
She quickly made her way back down and entered the kitchen. Just as promised, her mother was there, sitting on a stool chair with a bowl of fruit cereals. Her heart began thumping at the thought of bringing up about the said prize. A young adult like her didn’t have to ask permission. She could do whatever she wanted in life but knowing her parents’ job, they both had to know her activities just for safety, protection and out of respect. They didn’t come off as overbearing for her. She didn’t mind how they willingly watched her back all the time as it was something to be grateful about, knowing how dangerous her occupation was.
“Hey, Mom.” Faith sat next to her mother and fixed her gaze on the egg sandwich on a plate. The filling was made with boiled eggs shredded into tiny bits mixed with mayonnaise. Just thinking about the taste could make anyone drool. “Have a look at this.”
She slid the letter to her.
“Hmm? What’s this about?” Her mother eyed the letter and picked it up, opening it to read what was written.
“Do you remember about our reunion party’s special prize? Our gang got lucky. We get to sleep inside a five-star hotel!” Faith smiled, but it suddenly faded away. She softened her expression and eyed her mother. “Hang on, you don’t mind me going out with my friends? It’s only for a couple of days.”
“Four days . . .” Her mother placed the letter down and stared intently into her own daughter’s bluish-green eyes. “Why will I hold you back from this? It’s best to take a break and have fun.” She smiled like a sweet angel, instantly soothing her daughter’s tension. “I am sure your father will approve and if anything happens, you know how he does it. Thank you for telling us.”
“Thanks, Mom.” Relieved to know that, Faith leaned in and gave her mother a warm hug. “I promise to keep you guys posted . . . and the agency.”
Her mother returned the same gesture, chuckling fondly. “I’m sure you will and you’re welcome, honey.”
Pulling an arm’s length away, Faith said her goodnight. She grabbed her plate and glass of water before heading back inside her room, carefully placing them on the nightstand. She plopped her weight down on her bed and let out a huge sigh.
That went well. I wonder if he’s still awake?
Picking up her egg sandwich, she took a small bite of it and grabbed her phone to call Theo. He picked up after a few rings.
“Why do you have to call at this hour?” Theo’s voice drawled over the line. He sounded annoyed.
Faith smirked. “Sorry for ruining your hibernation, but I just wanted to let you know that I’m in. Mom said yes!”
“And your dad?”
“He will. He’s just fast asleep.” She chewed on her creamy egg sandwich. As it melted on her tongue, she took another bite.
“Fifty percent—what are you eating? You’re chewing on something sticky.”
“Have you talked to your parents?”
“Yeah. Don’t worry. They don’t mind me disappearing for four days.”
“How about Aunt Sally?”
“She’ll be sad about not seeing me around and helping out with the chores on weekends, but she’ll get over it. You know her. Big on family stuff, but I’m down with that.”
“Oh, right. She could get so worried. I remember the last time when you accidentally stomped a hole through—”
“Let’s not go there . . .”
She held back her laughter. “Sorry, but it was hilarious . . . and I’m just excited about our short vacation.”
Theo couldn’t stop himself from grinning. “Can’t blame you for getting excited. Must be boring to be cooped up inside your office . . . thinking all day.”
“But you’re always there to brighten up my day.”
“More like to be your personal assistant.”
Faith laughed heartily. “Okay, okay, I’ll let you have your beauty rest now. Good morning.”
“Good morning.” He yawned before dropping the call.
Faith scrolled through her contacts while taking a leisurely sip from her glass of water. She came across Olwen, tapping her name to make the call.
After two rings, she picked up.
“Hello, Faith. I see you have arrived safely.”
Olwen was a twenty-eight-year-old woman and the most matured one in their circle. Her facial features were quite soft and young-looking, contradictory to the way she delivered her dialogues.
“How about you? I’m not disturbing you, am I?” Faith munched on her egg sandwich again.
“Oh, no, not really. I had just taken a warm bath.”
“A warm bath.” Her voice came out flat.
“Am I not allowed to?” Olwen put her phone on loudspeaker and placed it on top of a table before drying her jet-black hair with a towel.
“Course not. I’m just playing with you,” she said, with a chuckle. “Anyway, weren’t you planning to go camping with your whole family? How did it go?”
“At first, they were skeptical about it, but they eventually agreed to go without me,” Olwen said, with a deep sigh. She was currently living alone in her own apartment at Brooklyn. “How about your parents? I know how they are . . .”
“Mom, said yes. Dad, on the other hand, is fast asleep. But I know he will.”
“I see. . . . Have you called the other girls? How about Theo?”
“Not yet. Just you and Theo. I’m about to call the rest so go and get some sleep, Olwen, after you blow dry your hair. Don’t sleep when your hair is still wet! Good morning, by the way.”
“I know, I know. Good morning, Faith.” Olwen escaped a hearty chuckle and ended the call.
Next was Maxine.
Faith tapped her name and after a few rings, her friend picked up. She was already snuggled under the sheets of her comfy bed.
“Let me guess, you’re calling everyone?”
Maxine was a twenty-seven-year-old woman with shoulder-length ash blonde hair and wavy ends. Her body was quite athletic. She was slim and fit that her friends envied her flat stomach and firm muscles on her arms. Despite long hours under the sun, her skin tone had always been fair.
Letting out a short grunt, Faith threw her head back. “You are right about that.”
“I’ve already called Judy and Kacey. The two were screaming in my ear and I swear to God my eardrum was about to burst!” Maxine sighed softly.
It was typical of them to be hyped up about it.
Judy and Kacey were white-skinned blondes, but Judy had curly ends while Kacey had straight hair. Judy looked young and clumsy with her baby-faced features while Kacey was more of the mature and sarcastic type with her strong features and cleanly arched brows.
Both of them were the same age as Maxine.
“Then we’re all set for next Friday!” Faith’s voice chimed like a bell.
“You can say that again. I wonder how this will go?” Maxine turned to her side and reached out for her lamp to adjust the light.
“Who knows? We’ll find out soon when we get there.” Faith landed her eyes on the wall clock of her room. “Oh! It’s almost 4 in the morning. I’m hitting the bed. Good morning, Maxine!”
“You can call me whenever you want, but expect that I’m awake in the afternoon. Good morning to you, too!”
After ending the call, Faith ate the last bite of her egg sandwich and quickly drank from her glass of water. She placed the empty glass on the nightstand and pulled the sheets over her, comfortably lying in bed until she had fallen asleep.
Clue: Numbers written in numerical.
1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . .