Macky Signs Up for Magic

. . . . .

Application successfully installed.

Macky stared at the icon that had appeared on the upper left corner of his phone's screen. It was made of the opposite halves of two hearts, one indigo and the other magenta, connected in the middle by a white number "2". The icon, of course, was a visual rendering of the app's name: Heart2Heart.

Face hot, Macky glanced around the living room to make sure it was still empty aside from him and his mutt Dawkins, who was napping at his feet. At this point, the last thing he needed was for his Kuya Rahil or Ate Sam or, please God no, his little sister Nisa to leap out from behind the door or the couch and catch him in the act of signing up for a—he scowled at the thought—a dating app.

But it wasn't just any kind of dating app, was it? It was a magical dating app. Nisa had specifically mentioned that during the thousands of times she had gushed to him about it. A freaking magical dating app. A dating app with an unheard-of 98.35% success rate in getting its users into romantic relationships. That is, if you qualified for its premium enchantment service, which apparently had some stringent criteria.

Good, Macky had muttered, only half-listening, or we'd be surrounded by a bunch of useless couples, and nothing would ever get done around here. For that, Nisa had whacked him over the head with her stuffed bunny. As further punishment, she hung around his room for twenty more minutes, distracting him further from his studying with her raving about Heart2Heart and her reasons to believe that this time, this time for sure, she was going to qualify for the premium enchantment service. She was going to use Heart2Heart's magic to cast a love-spell over her crush Derrick and bind him to her, never mind that they were only in third grade and had no business binding anyone to anything.

And that was another thing. The terms this app used. Enchantments, spell-casting and love charms? Seriously? From what Macky could see, the app was a combination of journal, simulation game, message board, and motivational app similar to a workout app, but for romantic aspirations. Then there was that. That thing that John Eli had explained to him and Billy before. That special feature of Heart2Heart where if you collected enough hearts, you and your victim—er, your love interest were guaranteed to fall in love and enter a relationship together.

It was totally laughable, and that's exactly what Macky had done the first time John Eli told him and Billy about it: He laughed his head off, then immediately launched into a series of arguments about how the app was just a load of slick graphics, clever programming and marketing crap, and that of course magic didn't exist, let alone magic that could control people to that extent. Besides, if the app really could track a person's movements and emotional states that well—using GPS or self-monitoring or whatever—then the app wasn't just some harmless hokey, it was downright suspicious and probably criminal. So best to stay away from Heart2Heart or its purported enchantments, was Macky's nuanced opinion.

Normally, his arguments based on reason and logic were enough to give John Eli at least a bit of a pause. But not this time. Instead, his best bud merely pushed his glasses up and smiled that infinitely patient smile he used whenever he thought Macky was off on one of his "lectures" again. Then he signed up for that app anyway. Against Macky's and presumably his own better judgment. And now…

Now, one month later, Macky was finding it a little harder to argue against him. After all, John Eli was one of the few who qualified for Heart2Heart's premium service, and who managed to complete its ridiculous mission. Now the guy was in a relationship with Rowie, a cute girl in their year who Macky hadn't even been aware had been among the many contenders for John Eli's heart. The two had been a couple for little over two weeks now and both seemed blissfully happy. Even Macky was hard-pressed to argue against that kind of success.

Dammit. Then Nisa somehow found out about it, and now his baby sister was even more determined to apply for the premium service and ensnare poor Derrick. Who knew what perverted things the app developers could do with the personal information of underage girls like her? For all Macky knew, the developers were running a—a child prostitution ring or an international pedophile's club or something.

Dammit, dammit. He had to put a stop to this before Nisa or Billy, who hadn't had much luck with girls since, well, ever, could become even more obsessed with this shady app. It was too late to save John Eli, but Macky could still save his other buddy and his naïve little sister.

So here he was, about to sign up for an allegedly magical dating app. All for the sake of conducting an undercover investigation to debunk the app's claims and reveal it for the marketing scam it was. Then maybe, just maybe, he could get his best buds and most importantly his little sister to listen to him and start thinking straight again.

He let his thumb hover over the icon, then stopped. Setting his phone down, he picked up his laptop from the couch and scanned through the contents of the browser tabs he'd left open. I'm not stalling, I'm not stalling, he argued with himself. He was just double-checking the information he'd dug up on the app's developers. Which was, unfortunately, pretty scanty. The app itself had a website, which featured a message board for the users to post their reviews about with the app, as well as a description of the app's features. There was also a page full of glowing testimonials from users who had started out either desperate or skeptical or just looking for something to kill time, but then through the app's help managed to get into deep, meaningful relationships with people they loved.

But as for the developers themselves, there was almost no information about them. The "About" page just had the developers' logo in one corner—a stylistically-rendered white bird with gold and pink wings, encircled by its long tail feathers. Underneath this was a single word in fancy serif font: Hiwaga.

Hiwaga. Magic.

"Way to be subtle about it," Macky snorted out loud. Also, why just one word? Not Hiwaga Developers, not Hiwaga, Incorporated, not Hiwaga the Gathering. Just "magic."

And another thing: There was no real way to contact the developers. There was no mobile number, no landline or fax number, nothing. There was an email address, but it was a Gmail account and there were ways to set up an anonymous Gmail account—Macky had looked them up just to prove his point. And as for a mailing address, all it said was "Metro Manila, Philippines." A metropolis of sixteen cities. Yeah, way to be specific.

The last item on the page was a description of Hiwaga that, again, wasn't much help. All it said was: We are a diverse, creative team of programmers, graphic designers and specialists with unique talents, and we aim to use these talents to help those in need. We serve the Light.

"What is that?" Macky grumbled, frowning at the screen. "Specialists with unique talents? What, like hacking and data-harvesting? And what's with that 'We Serve the Light?'" Dawkins snuffled, scratched his head, and settled back down. "Yeah, you're right, boy. This is getting me nowhere." Macky set his laptop aside and cracked his knuckles. "Okay. Reconnaissance is over. Mission starts now."

He clicked the icon on his phone. The screen went dark, then a burst of light nearly blinded him. The light dissolved into sparkles that coalesced into the white, pink and gold bird-logo floating upon darkness. The image was accompanied by the crystalline ringing of a bell. The noise woke Dawkins up and he looked about in alarm, then when it became evident that there was no need for him to go into guard-dog mode, went back to sleep.

By then, Macky had gone past introductory animation of magenta and indigo hearts flying about in random directions until a pink thread swirled out and lassoed two of them, pulling them together until they were interlinked as the name Heart2Heart appeared underneath. Then a series of questions followed.

Name?

In the space underneath, he typed in the fake name he'd chosen beforehand. Then he tapped "submit."

More words appeared. Name incorrect. Name?

"Huh?" He typed in several other variations of the alias, but never got beyond Name incorrect. Name? "Incorrect? Not even a 'username taken?'" he said in puzzled disbelief.

After a few more fruitless tries, he gave up and typed Macky Velasco then tapped "submit," expecting yet another Name incorrect response, at which point he was going to throw his phone against the wall. Magenta and indigo hearts swarmed his screen, then to his surprise, a series of sentences appeared.

Well, that wasn't too hard, was it? Nice to meet you, Macky. In the interest of clarity, what's your full name?

He stared at his phone as a tingle ran down his spine. "Pre-programmed response," he muttered to himself. He typed "Why ask?" just for the hell of it, and tapped "submit."

Names have power. We need to know so we can design a Heart2Heart program specifically for you. What is your full name, Macky?

Scowling, he typed in a bunch of gibberish.

No need to be rude. Please indicate your full name, the app responded, and Macky could almost hear his phone sniff with wounded dignity.

Macky Velasco, he typed in again.

Name incorrect. Full name please.

"Aaargh." Why hadn't John Eli warned him about the app's intractability? Finally, he typed in his name in all its pretentious weirdness: Malkiel Iverson Luna Velasco. "There. Happy now?" he snapped.

Thank you. Yes, we are indeed happy with your cooperation. Age?

He frowned. That response sounded almost as if the app had heard him. But… "No way. That can't be right," he murmured, shaking his head. 16, he typed.

Sex? _Male _Female _Intersex _Other

His eyebrows lifted. Other? He tapped "Male."

Sexual Orientation?

There were no options, so he just typed "straight."

This was followed by a series of questions expected of any dating app—his favorite color, animal, food, books, movies and TV shows, his hobbies and interests, his preferences regarding romances and dating, his ideas about relationships. He chose a username—Dawkins428—and a photo of Dawkins wearing a paper hat, sunglasses and Macky's arm slung around his neck as a profile photo.

Then there was this: If you were to choose a personal motto, what would it be?

Grinning, Macky typed: Luck favors the well-prepared.

More hearts went flying, then he was inside Heart2heart. The app's main interface showed a pink thread swirling atop a dark, marbled field. Strung along the thread like beads were magenta and indigo heart-icons for the app's features. Macky spent the next several minutes polishing his profile page, scanning the journal/blog feature with its "rate your mood" and "pick a love song/romantic novel or movie" and "post love quote for the day" sub-features, and scrolling through the advice column-style message board and rolling his eyes at the responses to the various cries for help. He ignored the minigame where some comic characters got embroiled in their own romantic predicaments and the users got to choose what would happen next. He found a gallery where users could post their favorite romantic photos and artwork, and decided to skip the rest of it.

Ah, there it was. A pink heart at the bottom of the screen labeled Premium Enchantment Services.

Here goes, he thought, and clicked it.

More swarms of hearts. Then a dense field of words appeared, describing the premium service's rules and features. Joke's on them, though, because Macky happened to be one of those rare beings who actually read the end-user agreements. And if he understood the app developer's contract correctly, then the premium service was totally free of any and all charges, but its success depended entirely on the user following all of its instructions to the letter. How long the process took was up to the user, but the app didn't have that ridiculously high success rate for nothing. As long as the users completed the tasks faithfully and sincerely, the app was going to bring the user and their love interests together.

Of course, the developers reserved the right to select those who qualified for the service. How they did this, they didn't exactly make clear, but Macky suspected that their selectivity was key to that success rate they were so proud of.

"Magic, my ass. It's just a bunch of algorithms sifting through user data," he scoffed. "Okay, let's do this." He held his breath and tapped "yes".

His phone went dark again, and stayed dark for several minutes. Then just before he decided that his phone had died and needed restarting, new words appeared on the screen.

Place the palm of your dominant hand flat on the screen of your phone.

"Huh?" This, he wasn't expecting. His phone didn't have any sensory devices, and he doubted the app had somehow managed to install sensors in his phone. "How is this supposed to work?"

He pulled up his laptop again and Googled possible explanations, but got nothing. Giving up, he set the laptop aside and picked up his phone, then blinked.

The words on the screen had changed. It's magic, Macky. And this is your first test. Will you choose to follow or not?

Very carefully, he turned his phone off and set it down on the coffee table, counting underneath his breath to see how long it would take to shut down. Then he turned it on again and laid his hand upon its back to check if it was unusually warm. He inspected its application manager for any suspicious activities. He seriously considered combing the house for hidden cameras and microphones. To do so, though, he'd have to wait until it was dark, which wasn't until a few hours yet. By that time, his parents and Nisa would've been back from their movie date, Ate Sam and Kuya Rahil from their own dates with their significant others—emphasis on the plural form in Kuya Rahil's case—and their live-in housekeeper, Ate Bella, from her church services. Macky had had enough trouble convincing them that he was suffering from a bum stomach so they'd let him stay home that afternoon. Fielding their questions while he killed all the lights in the house and probed every inch with a cardboard tube and a flashlight would be next to impossible.

He clicked on the Heart2Heart icon again. After the developers' bird-logo animation, his screen went dark except for these words: Go forward or go back. It's your choice.

"How are you doing this? It's seriously creepy," Macky muttered.

The words changed again: Like we said, it's magic. It's not creepy, it's convenient.

"There's no such thing as magic," he retorted, then groaned when he realized that he'd taken to speaking directly to his phone. "What the hell am I doing? There's gotta be a logical explanation for this."

Suit yourself. Still, you've come this far. Isn't there something your heart is longing for? Someone you would like to be with?

A girl's face drifted through his mind, reminding him of his objective. "There's no such thing as magic," he repeated in a louder voice. "This app is a whole lotta baloney, and I'm going to prove it."

He slapped his hand onto his phone screen, and it quickly grew warm underneath his palm. When he pulled his hand away, new words had appeared: See? Easy! Please wait while we process your application.

This was followed by an animation of a magenta and indigo heart bouncing around while a pink thread lashed about attempting to catch them. Then the animation ended, and new words appeared: What is the name of the person you would like to be in a relationship with?

The girl's face flitted behind his eyeballs again, and he grinned evilly as he typed in a name. After a series of questions about the girl, the lasso-the-hearts animation came up again. Just then, Dawkins woke up and jumped to his feet, barking madly. Moments later, a car-horn blared outside, signaling that his mom and dad and Nisa were back. Macky quickly turned his phone off and closed his laptop, then went to open the gate for them and for Ate Bella, who had also just returned. He soon got caught up in the usual Sunday night activities in the Velasco household—dinner preparations, listening to Nisa babble about the movie they had watched, ignoring Ate Sam's whining about having to go to work the next day, feeding Dawkins and letting him out for his pre-bedtime patrol of the backyard.

And so it gave him a jolt when he checked his phone and saw a strange notification marked by a flashing indigo heart. He clicked the heart, and magenta and indigo filled his screen, along with the words:

Congratulations! You qualify for Heart2Heart's premium enchantment service! Tap to proceed.

Macky ducked his head to hide his grin. He ran upstairs to his room with Dawkins at his heels, and shut the door. Plopping down on his bed, he tapped the screen.

Your princess to be wooed: Audrey Janine C. Unson.

A triumphant whoop escaped Macky before he could cram his fist against his mouth to hold it in. Uh oh. He had to be careful not to alert Nisa, whose room was beside his. This was great! Everything was going exactly as planned. With that girl as his target, he could not possibly fail to fail. After all, nobody in their right mind would ever see Awkward Audrey as in any way appealing, let alone fall in love with her. Just the thought of getting stuck with her was enough to turn Macky's stomach. With her in the picture, he was going to break Heart2Heart's winning streak and prove to John Eli, Billy, and Nisa once and for all that the app's enchantment was just a pile of cutesy lies and meaningless coincidences.

As he was daydreaming about his forthcoming exposé, more hearts swirled onto the screen then dissolved into a white field with a calendar located on the upper half of the screen, beginning from the current date. Underneath the calendar was a corkboard bulletin board. Tacked onto this in neat rows were five red hearts, followed by several tiny roses, and even more broken arrows, little black daggers, and what looked like tiny gas lanterns. There was also a pocket-watch in the bottom left corner, although it was faded compared to the other objects, indicating that it was still disabled.

Underneath those was the word Instructions, which he tapped.

To win the heart of your princess, you are to do a certain task five times over the span of two to three weeks. Each time you accomplish this task, a heart will appear in appropriate day in the calendar to mark your success. Each time you suffer a setback, a broken arrow will appear.

Macky recalled the disheartening number of broken arrows, and shrugged. It won't matter to me.

Each time you do something nice for your princess that softens her heart toward you, a rose will appear on the calendar. Each time you reach an insight about love, yourself or your loved one, a lantern will appear.

"So avoid roses or lanterns. Got it." Then he frowned when he read the next lines.

Each time you refuse to do a task or willfully neglect an opportunity to further your cause, or if you do the task with insincerity, dishonesty, deception or disrespect in mind, a black dagger will appear and you will experience bad luck. The more black daggers you get, the worse luck you will have.

"Wait, hold on," he said, sitting up and scowling at his phone. "You've been telling people they're going to have bad luck? That's psychological manipulation. You're setting up brainless, gullible users to believe that they're being punished with bad luck so they'll be forced to do what you say."

He scrolled further down, then glared when he read: Very good, Macky. We can see you've got everything figured out. Until that moment, he hadn't believed plain text on a screen could deliver so much sarcasm. His phone practically dripped with it.

He scrolled down some more, seriously irritated now. Anyway, where were we before we were distracted by your brilliance? Oh yes. The calendar is your time limit, but if you feel you need more time, click the pocket-watch icon below. When you have successfully completed the tasks and earned all five hearts, your princess will be yours.

Macky tossed his phone down beside him in disgust. "This is stupid. The whole thing's even worse than I thought." Then his annoyance melted away as he started to laugh. "Oh man, this is going to be a walk in the park," he gloated.

A knock on his door startled him. "Kuya Macky, are you talking to yourself again?" Nisa called through the door.

"Yeah, so?" he countered.

"Would you be a weirdo more quietly? It's a school night. I'm trying to sleep," his little sister complained.

"Whatever. Go away, Nisa."

He could hear her grumbling before the door to her room clicked shut. Shaking his head, he picked up his phone again to finish reading the instructions. He wanted to know what exactly the app wanted him to do five times—

Very shortly later, the entire Velasco family was rudely reintroduced to wakefulness when Macky's incredulous shout rang through the house.

"I'm supposed to what?!"