by Benjamin Orion (@orion_benjamin)
Editor: Hannah VanVels (@hannahvanvels)
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To find the Philippines’ missing moon, stars and daylight, Riri must do three things: book a flight back to the motherland, make Gram drink her dementia meds, and pray she remembers how to be a goddess.
Soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old Filipino American Riri wants nothing more than to blend in with her classmates in LA where she spends her days daydreaming of whiter skin and blonde hair, hiding Gram’s adobo in her school locker, and avoiding the pesky Spelling Bee adviser. So when the hip-hopping OG god Batala, a.k.a. B Diddy, magically appears on Gram’s TV and says Riri’s immigrant grandmother is the retired, time-traveling Goddess of Lost Things and the only one who can find the missing light of the Philippines, Riri is adamantly opposed. After all, she has the perfect All-American birthday extravaganza to plan, and having a retired goddess as her grandmother will not help her fit in.
Riri and Gram travel from LA to Manila and must battle Dwendes, Manananggals, Tikbalangs, and the God of the Underworld himself to rescue the Goddesses of the Moon, Stars, and Daylight. But as they pull the Philippines out of the dark, they discover that there is a much more sinister plan at play threatening to destroy all of human history. And in order to save the world, they must untangle Gram’s past and present and a future too fantastical for Riri to accept.
RIRI AND THE GODDESS OF LOST THINGS combines the fantastical myth-based adventure of Aru Shah and the strong family ties of Tristan Strong with Philippine mythology in this 64,000-word middle grade fantasy.
I'm a thirty-six-year-old POC writer from the Philippines who thinks of himself as a writing Willy Wonka because, aside from creating stories, I spend most of my time in my family’s candy and chocolate factory.
First Five Pages
Here’s the tea: I’m good at remembering stuff. But you know what I do better? Lie about the stuff I remember!
Say, when my Language Arts teacher asked me what food Gram served on my birthday party seven years ago, I remembered the answer with brain download speeds and accuracy not even AT&T’s 1000 Mbps can beat. We had lumpiang shanghai (that’s ground pork spring rolls a.k.a. crispy fried headless maggots), pancit palabok (that’s rice noodles in shrimp sauce with hard-boiled eggs, fish flakes and pork-crackling toppings a.k.a. Shrek’s Princess Fiona’s hair unwashed for forty days), kare-kare (that’s oxtail, tripe, and vegetable stew in peanut sauce a.k.a. Pinoy Zombie Special) with bagoong (that’s salty shrimp paste a.k.a. the smelliest thing in the history of smelly things) and rice cupped, portioned and individually (mystifyingly, unnecessarily and, like my soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old-fast-food sensibility bickered, inconveniently) wrapped in sheets of banana leaves. And for dessert? Ube halaya (mashed purple yam? Nuh-uh! More like McDonald’s Grimace splattered like a crime scene on a plate), and leche flan (that’s crème caramel! Okay, fine. Don’t tell anyone. This one I like.).
I bit my labium inferius oris and scraped off its dead skin cells. Sorry? Oh! What’s labium inferius oris you ask? That’s just the fancy scientific nickname for the lower lip. And it’s spelled the way it sounds. L-A-B-I-U-M, I-N-F-E-R-I-U-S, O-R-I-S. Easy peasy, right? No? Okay.
So where was I? I bit my—ahem—lower lip and looked at the Los Angeles outside our classroom windows which Mr. Habichuck the Principal always made sure to mention were green, sustainable, and worth boatloads of dollars. The tall buildings in the distance, the electric cars zooming past, the palm tree branches doing the dab against the dim-sum-scented breeze of some food truck nearby, the clear blue sky, the… ugh! I squinted. That sun! O-M-G! It was too hot, too big and too extra for my liking. I fixed my Uniqlo parka, one of the few coats in existence in all of Southern California I’m sure—popped its hood, pulled down the sleeves and zipped it up. Didn’t want to waste the $5.99 Likas Papaya skin-whitening soap I bought at the Filipino store last week. Goal was to lighten my morena color and not bake it further to golden brown imperfection. Whoever the sun god is, we need to have a talk.
“Be careful what you wish for,” someone whispered to my ear. I scrunched my brows and looked around. All twenty-seven of my classmates were busy doing their own thing, showing varying degrees of boredom. Dude seated on my left wearing a RIP-Grumpy-Cat statement cap was busy writing another corny love poem about a girl he met in detention three days ago. Student on my right, the athlete whose XL body was squeezed inside an XS shirt and whose last name ironically sounded like Gatorade (Greenade? Poltergate? Poltergeist? Whatev!) was zoned out, fists in a ball and mouthing the Nike slogan again and again. “Just do it! Just do it! Just do it!”
I shrugged. Must be the wind. Or my imagination.
What was her question again? My birthday party food seven years ago? I took a huge breath and let my lips decide what to say. “Pizza! Burgers! French fries! Soda! And generous servings of choco-dipped sundae cones with the coolest star sprinkles, Ms. Cunningham!”
Ms. Cunningham drummed her fingers on her desk. Yikes! Look at the nails on those fingers. Chipped and cheddar-cheese yellow. The color clashed with her violet polka-dotted dress and the pair of green worn-out crocs on her jittery feet. Well, at least yellow matched the paint color of the classroom walls and the dinosaur-fossil teeth crowding her mouth. And what about those eyes—those narrow pale ones behind her bean-shaped glasses? See how they sprint across my brown face and take quick breathers over my rubber-tire lips, tomato nose, and the bowl-cut hair I’m trying to grow out? If I were a tortoise, I would have skedaddled inside my shell.
Fun fact! A group of tortoises is called a creep. Not so fun fact! Give that word a letter S at the end, and it would say what Ms. Cunningham’s scanners were giving me.
Ms. Cunningham stood up, shrunk her head into her chest and brought her hands in front of her face. She turned her fingers into claws and playfully scratched her nose and lips.
Ms. Beth Cunningham: seventh grade teacher and human squirrel!
“Oh, Glooooriiiaaa…” she squeaked.
Gloria? Seriously? Ooh, the shade! I braved the annoying giggles and prying looks of my now un-bored classmates thirsty for my reaction. I stood up and tightened the lid on the simmering volcano inside me. “Please call me Riri. R-I-R-I, Ms. Cunningham.”
“Okay, Riri,” Ms. Cunningham replied, transforming back to a normal human being. “So, the theme of your sixth-birthday party buffet was…?”
“All-American?” The pages of my memory flipped open again. Words rocketed one by one. Lumpia! Kare-kare! Ube halaya! Pancit! Rice, rice, and more rice! I ignored the riot, rolled my eyes, and gave the lady a decisive nod. “Yes.”
Ms. Cunningham stopped, stared and stayed, until her eyes glossed over, maybe with doubt or concern or just the reflection of the cobwebby fluorescent lights. “Very well.” Something in between a pout and a grin broke across her face, her yellowish teeth front and center yet again.
After a few minutes, the bell rang, not a second too late. My classmates sprung out of their seats and made for the exit like zombies attacking the last non-zombie on the planet. I survived the stampede, stood up, and waited. And as soon as the Tresemme Trio, the three most popular, most fashionable, and most everything in class (in the whole seventh grade, in fact) and their shampoo-commercial hair popped in the corner of my eyes, I unzipped my jacket and debated on where to put it: the one-shoulder-I-know-this-jacket’s-gonna-fall-but-I’m-too-cool-to-care look or the fold-it-fast-and-keep-it-in-your-backpack-you-dork option.
I chose option two, stood up straight, and untangled the bangs plastered on my fivehead. I waved at Brielle, their leader—blonde, beautiful, perfect. “Hi, Bri-Brielle! You received my birthday invite? I sent you girls a DM.”
Brielle pulled her pink-crystal-studded iPhone out of her pocket, swiped left, right, up, and down. She tapped the screen once. Ting! “Yeah. We did.”
“Soooo?” The millisecond of waiting stretched forever. “You think you can come?”
Brielle wrinkled her nose. Oh, no. I had to convince them.
“We’ll have steak.” Lie! “And fries and root beer floats.” Lie! “It’s gonna be fun.” Lie?
“Hmm,” Brielle said noncommittally.
“We’ll have a rock band. A mini-concert!” I was reaching a whole new level of creativity here.
Brielle’s expression changed. She turned to the rest of her gang who stood on each of her sides, straight and motionless like two wooden posts framing a picture-perfect Brielle-McKinley moment. The posts’ heads nodded. Brielle gifted me a sparkly smile worthy of its own TV ad. “Sounds awesome. Why not?”
Imaginary fireworks exploded all around me. And it wasn’t even the Fourth of July.
“Awesome!” I snorted.
The Tresemme Trio flicked their fingers and waved goodbye. I copied them out of courtesy and watched them catwalk toward the door. But before they exited, Brielle glanced over her shoulder, her hair flipping in slow motion. “Cool top, by the way. It slaps. No cap!”
Of course! It was the same shirt she wore a month ago but in black. The one that said ROCKSTAR in pink big glittery letters. I bought it immediately in blue. And also one in red. And in yellow (sunflower yellow, not Ms. Cunningham cheddar-cheese yellow). Though, I made sure to let some weeks pass before I wore it to school. Didn’t want to be accused of being Brielle’s Number 1 Stan or Brielle’s Asian Copycat. That would be weird and borderline creepy. And I’m neither. Pinky swear.
If my feet were detached from my body, they would have totally levitated by now, The Brielle McKinley coming to my party and saying my top looks cool? Best moment ever!
Susmaryosep! I mean oh, my gosh! “Yes, Ms. Cunningham?” I almost forgot she was there.
“Remember me asking you last month? About you joining the Spelling Bee Club?”
Spelling Bee? Jeez. Asian kid plus Spelling Bee equals a cliché death sentence.
“You’re talented. Very good in finding things in your past and remembering them. You have an eidetic memory, more commonly known as…”
“So what’cha think?” She pulled a paper out her desk drawer and held it in front of me.