Giovanni

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Gio sat in his chair in class, his notebook and pen laid out on his desk. The classroom was silent as his classmates sat ramrod straight in their chairs, their faces blank as they stared in front of them. There was no teacher, which seemed perfectly fine to Gio. What was less fine was the fact that while everyone was wearing their school uniforms—cream-colored blouses and light brown skirts for the girls and white shirts and black pants for the boys—he was the only one dressed in a tank top, basketball shorts and rubber flip-flops.

Mortified, he stood up to go change into his uniform, only to halt midway out of his chair when Auntie Nella strode into the room. "Pass your reports," she barked.

As everyone dutifully began passing papers forward, Gio dropped back in his chair, panic rising when he realized that he'd come to class empty-handed. As expected, Auntie Nella glared right at him. "Gio, where is your report?"

"I—I haven't done it. I'm sorry, Ma'am," he stammered.

"So you failed again?" his aunt said snidely.

"No, I—m-maybe I can do a makeup assignment?"

"You failed again. That report is another thing you owe me." Auntie Nella stalked over to his chair as his classmates turned around in unison to look at him, wearing identical smirks on their faces. "Just look at you," his aunt said contemptuously as she loomed over him. "Mariel was wrong about you. You've let your mother down."

To Gio's horror, he started to cry. Hiccupping sobs escaped him, which made sense because he was six years old and being taunted by the other kids again for being an over-sensitive, weepy pushover. His classmates started laughing, and he tore himself out of his seat and ran out of the classroom, fleeing down the corridor as fast as he could.

He found himself running through billowing golden clouds, which parted to reveal the living room of his house. He stopped, relieved to finally be safe at home and to find everything in its place. Their lumpy couch with the runners Lola had made out of scraps of cloth; the small, old-fashioned TV they'd inherited from a neighbor, with pictures of their family perched on top; their plastic dining table and plastic chairs, even the basket on the table that was filled with assorted toys, coils of string, hair ties and other gewgaws; their miniscule kitchen with Lola's oversized anahaw fan hanging among the utensils. There was Grayson's green plastic rocking duck in front of the TV, Gisele's notebook with the crazy-eyed unicorn on the cover where she'd left it on the stairs, Gaby's uniform blouse and skirt hanging on the bannister. Everything was the way it was before the fire.

Except for one thing: Yellow watched him from the middle of the stairs, her ears and tail low as if she wasn't sure of her welcome in Gio's home.

"Yellow?" he said in wonder.

She woofed and clattered down to meet him, tail wagging enthusiastically. She licked his hand, did her happy tap-tapping dance and woofed some more. Laughing, Gio dropped down to his knees and rubbed her behind her ears.

"You're looking good, girl." It was true. Yellow had lost her painful scrawniness and appeared round and well-fed. Her fur looked clean and well-groomed, and her eyes and nose were bright with good health.

"This is right," he murmured as he scratched her flank then gave her a belly rub when she lay down in front of him, wriggling with joy. "This is home. We're both home."

Yellow clambered to her feet and barked. Gio watched as she trotted over to the space underneath the stairs where they kept the cardboard box that contained Nanay's clothes and things. Yellow sniffed at the box, then looked over at Gio.

"What? You want me to open the box?"

He got to his feet and went over to the box. Suddenly, Yellow spun around and growled at the box. Gio drew back, surprised at the shift in the dog's demeanor, then looked at the box again. Smoke was rising from it, and red-orange sparks ignited in one corner and quickly spread. The air grew scorching as smoke filled the inside of the house, accompanied by a dull, steady roar mixed with distant shouts of alarm. Gio looked wildly toward the kitchen. Through the open back door, he saw a rippling wall of red flame and black smoke. It had just finished swallowing the house behind theirs and was moving relentlessly toward his house. The back door caught fire, flames licking the inside of their kitchen and turning Lola's anahaw fan into ash, and the smoke reached into his throat and squeezed his lungs.

Gio tried to run but fell to the floor instead. His feet had sunk into the floor up to his ankles so that he was stuck there. Dimly aware of Yellow's agitated barking, he shielded his face with an arm and waited to be devoured by the flames.

"Giovanni."

The sound of an authoritative voice calling his real name sent a jolt of awareness through him, similar to the feeling of waking up. He lowered his arm, embarrassed and ashamed of his cowardly reactions, and found himself staring up at a strange, scruffy-faced man dressed in a pair of jeans, a blue T-shirt with an orca and the words Save the Whales emblazoned on it, several necklaces made of wooden beads, and leather sandals.

"It's all right, Gio. You can get up now," the man said, offering him a kindly smile.

Gio glanced around. Both his house and the inferno consuming it were gone. Instead, he was sitting up on the reed mat on the floor of Auntie Nella's darkened living room. Grayson lay next to him, the thin blanket already at his feet, with Gaby and their grandmother on the other side of the mat. Lola had insisted that Gisele take the couch that night, and no amount of arguing could dissuade her. It had taken Gio a while to get used to the aches and pains he woke up to after spending the night on the floor, and he could only imagine how uncomfortable the elderly lady was going to be in the morning.

"Oh. I guess I was dreaming," he said lamely.

"You still are," the man pointed out. "The difference is: you'll remember this dream when you wake up."

Gio decided that this made perfect sense, since he didn't think it in any way odd to find a total stranger standing in his aunt's home, watching them sleep. And when Yellow appeared and sat down beside the man, looking sheepish, Gio found that he could roll with this bit of implausibility as well.

It's not as if this is the first time tonight that I dealt with a supposedly impossible situation, he thought, recalling the other version of Yellow he'd seen earlier that night. "So, uh, who exactly are you?" he asked.

"My name is Kiko. I'm a helper of sorts." The man called Kiko then scratched Yellow behind the ears. "It's okay, little sister. You tried, but humans are simply much better at all this unconscious mind stuff."

"You and Yellow know each other," Gio stated rather than asked, pushing himself to his feet.

"We're old friends," Kiko said with a smile. "Now please come with me. I need your help with something, and I regret to say that we don't have much time."

"Help with what?"

"I'll explain in a bit. For now, we need to take a short trip."

Gio followed the pair outside. Parked in front of the house was the slickest-looking motorcycle he'd ever seen outside of a poster, calendar, or action film. It was gleaming black all over, and reflected the light of the street lamps like liquid darkness.

"Whoa," he breathed. "Is that a—"

Kiko beamed. "A Suzuki GSX1300R Hayabusa."

"First generation, 1999. Has a top speed of a hundred and ninety miles per hour, two hundred with modifications. Can go from zero to sixty miles per hour in 2.6 seconds." Gio ran his hand reverently along the Suzuki's smooth flank, then got down on his haunches to examine it more closely. "Whoa, you've converted the engine?"

"Yep. This baby isn't just electric, it runs completely on water," Kiko answered proudly.

Gio looked up at him. "Really? I haven't heard yet of a successful, commercially developed water-powered engine that can match the performance of a gas or electric bike. So I guess this one has a little less kick than the others of its kind, huh?"

Light glinted off the motorcycle's front in a way that made it seem as if the Suzuki was giving him a nasty side-eye. Kiko laughed. "Absolutely not. When and where this baby was converted, engines that run on renewables are the standard technology. Do you like motorcycles? You seem to know a lot."

Gio stood up, his admiring gaze still fixed on the bike. "This town is full of motorcycles and motorcycle repair shops. Growing up, I've learned a thing or two. But man, I am definitely dreaming, because there's no way I'd ever see a first-generation Hayabusa here for real. This just isn't the kind of bike that gets serviced in Puláng Bató."

"With a starting price of nearly a million bucks? Probably not," Kiko agreed. At that point, Yellow barked at them impatiently. "Right, sorry. We have to go. Hop on, Gio."

Gio watched, unfazed, as a black motorcycle helmet with a wolf's head materialized on Kiko's head. He also had no qualms about getting on the bike behind Kiko, accepting it as natural that a metallic blue and silver helmet would appear in his hands. "So where are we going?" he asked as he put his helmet on.

"Not far. But I need you to remember where we're going. I'll explain when we get there."

Kiko gunned the engine and the Suzuki surged forward, its headlights cutting a bright white swathe in front of them. They rode through the dark streets, quiet now in the wee hours of the morning. At first, Gio was too busy admiring the power and fluid handling of the Suzuki to pay attention to where they were going, until he realized they had reached the last street at the very edge of the southern part of the town. As the farthest street from the town's center, it was the least populated and thus still thick with trees and vegetation. It was also the darkest, since somebody had decided that there weren't enough houses here to warrant more than a couple of street lamps.

"What're we doing here? There's nothing out here," Gio asked, puzzled now as the high concrete barrier that marked the town's border loomed closer.

The Suzuki stopped almost right in front of the concrete barrier, beside the broken-down wreck of a barangay outpost. Yellow was already there, woofing at them.

"This is where you have to go. Remember this, Gio. When you wake up, you must come here at once."

"But why?"

Kiko pointed at the outpost. Specifically, at the dark hole underneath it. "Yellow needs your help. Underneath this outpost is her den, where she and her puppies live. But they're about to lose their home tonight, and they'll need help finding a new home."

Gio found his gaze drifting toward Yellow, who was watching him with her ears tipped back in appeal. He thought back to the Yellow he'd seen earlier, comparing her to the healthy-looking dog with him now, then looked Kiko straight in the eye. "That's not Yellow in there, is it? The dog I brought home to bury who turned out to be alive—what is that dog, really?"

This time, Kiko's smile was tinged with sadness. "You're right. It's not really Yellow but her body with someone else's soul inside it. Specifically, another friend of mine who's agreed to live on as Yellow for a little while for the sake of her puppies."

"Then Yellow really is…" Gio glanced again at Yellow, who whined and lowered her head.

"Yes, her life here has ended. But my friend who's living in Yellow's body now… she badly needs your help. Especially since she's human herself."

"What?"

The sky flashed briefly, followed by the ominous rumble of thunder. Kiko turned his face up to the night sky laden with rainclouds, worry wreathing his features. "The thunderstorm is almost upon us, and this street is prone to floods. I'll explain everything later but for now… please. I implore you. Save my friend and Yellow's puppies. You're the only one who can."

Gio looked up at the sky, then at the dark hole underneath the outpost. Finally, he nodded. "I'll do it."

Kiko smiled again as Yellow's warm tongue lapped at Gio's hand. "Thank you. In exchange, in your next dream, you can have a turn on the bike. Now then. Giovanni, wake up."

Gio opened his eyes and blinked up at the darkened ceiling of Auntie Nella's living room. Grayson mumbled something in his sleep, then turned and kicked him in the side. Yup, he was definitely awake now. But that dream… it had felt so real…

He reached up to rub his eyes, and only then realized that he was holding something in his right hand. It was the object he'd picked up in their backyard earlier, which he clearly remembered stuffing into the shoebox that contained his personal effects before going to bed. Pushing his brother's leg off of his stomach, he sat up and gazed down at the object in his hand, thinking about the dream he had.

Lightning illuminated the living room, then a roll of thunder rattled the windows. Before the sound had faded away, Gio had gotten to his feet and taken down Uncle Roger's heavy-duty flashlight that hung from a hook on the wall near the bathroom. Next, he went out the back door to the laundry area, and came back in with plastic bucket with a lid, which he'd lined inside with newspaper and a rug slated for washing. With a folding umbrella under one arm, he let himself out of the gate, then reached in and latched it again.

What had been a less-than-five-minute ride on the motorcycle was a fifteen-minute walk from Auntie Nella's house to the last street at the very edge of town. Thunder and lightning and the thick pressure of an impending storm harried him along. Then about halfway to his destination, the rain started to pour.

Gio opened the umbrella and broke into a run. With this kind of heavy rain, bad things happened very quickly. The last street with the concrete barrier seemed even gloomier with the rain partially obscuring the light from the street lamps. By then, his clothes were soaked, the tiny umbrella proving to be practically useless against the ferocity of the rain.

He reached the outpost and was dismayed to find the street already half-flooded, with a miniature river gushing down from the vegetation, over the curb and across the street.

"Yellow!" Sloshing through the water, he turned the flashlight on and pointed it at the water-filled hole underneath the outpost, bracing himself for the worst. "Yellow? Where are you?"

Over the deafening drumming of the rain on the umbrella, he heard a whimpering sound. It was coming not from underneath the listing wooden outpost but from inside it. Drawing back, he aimed the flashlight inside. The floor within the cramped space was tilted downward, with water poured down from multiple holes in the roof. At the lowered end of the floor, Yellow's bony form was huddled protectively around what looked like a heap of white and dark fur. When the light fell upon her, she lifted her head and squinted at him, whining piteously as water dripped down her fur and she shivered from the cold.

Gio's chest ached at the sight. "Come on. Let's get you and the pups out of here. Can you pass them over to me? I don't think this thing can take my weight."

Yellow nodded, proving yet another part of his dream to be real. Moving stiffly, she unwound herself from around the mewling puppies and braced her legs against the crooked floor and wall. She picked one puppy up after another and stretched her neck out so he could take them—first a dark-colored one, then a pale-colored one, then two pups with dark and white spots. He put the squirming, crying bodies into the bucket, wrapped them in the rug, put the lid back on and set the bucket down on a relatively safe spot. Then he turned back to the outpost and reached a hand out for Yellow.

"Your turn. Come on, I'll pull you out," he said. Yellow whimpered again, then kicked off from the wall, her claws scrabbling for purchase against the rotting floor. Gio managed to grab a handful of skin and fur on the back of her neck and haul her out of the outpost. She plopped down on the ground, the water reaching past midway up her legs, just as the outpost folded backward with a creaking groan and a muffled splash. Gio caught sight of a black backpack swinging from a piece of wood on the side of the outpost, and without thinking he grabbed this too before it could drop into the muddy water, slipping his arms through the straps.

He went over to the bucket and picked it up in his arms, then partially opened the lid and angled the umbrella so that it would at least shield that open sliver from the rain. He looked back at Yellow. "Let's go home and get you guys dried up. Can you walk?"

Yellow nodded again. The two of them made their way through the half-flooded streets, pushing through what felt like a solid wall of water, both of them getting well and truly drenched in the process. Above them, lightning and thunder played an elemental game of tag in the sky. After what felt like years, Gio unlatched the gate to Auntie Nella's house and let Yellow inside.

He led her around the house, past Uncle Roger's old Mitsubishi and the chicken coops to the screened lanai that occupied half of the backyard. Glad that the rain muffled any noises he made, he pushed aside the table and Uncle Roger's favorite rattan chair to make room in a corner of the lanai for Yellow and the pups. He fetched more newspapers, an old towel and couple of curtains that belonged to the same pile of linens that Lola had planned to wash. He made a nest on floor with the newspapers and the curtains, then used the towel to briskly rub the puppies dry, wishing he had a hand dryer to warm them up. He wrapped the puppies up snuggly in the curtain, then turned his attention to Yellow, towel in hand.

She crouched just outside the lanai, looking as miserable as only a wet dog can. "Well? The pups are fine so come up here already," he called.

She gazed up at him, ears pulled back and tail between her legs, and he was struck by the traumatized look in her eyes. She shook herself violently, then climbed up onto the lanai and approached him hesitantly. He threw the towel over her and rubbed until the towel was soaked as well.

Her head poked out of the towel and his hands stilled as they regarded each other. Then she touched her nose to his wrist and rumbled softly, and Gio became aware that he was dripping all over the floor and shivering himself. "Right. I'll, uh, go get changed," he said, pushing himself to his feet. "I'll see if I can find you something to eat, too."

Her tail thumped against the wooden floor as she gave him a look of such hope and naked longing that it made him smile. "No promises, though, okay?" he warned.

He took a quick shower and changed into a dry shirt and shorts, using the occasional bursts of lightning to see what he was doing instead of turning the light on and possibly waking someone. Then he hunted in the kitchen for any leftovers, but all he could find were a few stale slices of bread in a plastic bag shoved deep into the refrigerator. His stomach growled, reminding him that he hadn't eaten dinner himself thanks to Auntie Nella's misunderstanding, and after checking if anyone was watching—an unnecessary move considering the storm overpowered every other sound—he took one of the slices and crammed it into his mouth.

He brought the remaining slices out to the lanai. Yellow lay in the nest of newspaper and cloth, nuzzling the nursing puppies as though inspecting them for injuries. She looked up at his approach, tail thumping slowly against the newspaper, then with more fervor when he held out a slice of bread instead of laying it on the floor in front of her. She shot him a look of pure gratitude and took the slice of bread out of his hand with that graceful elegance he'd noticed earlier, before practically swallowing the slice whole. He gave her the last two slices, which she again accepted with a ladylike daintiness and gobbled up in two bites. She licked her lips, then wagged her tail again when he presented her with a dish of water.

He plunked down cross-legged on the floor beside her, smiling as he watched her lap thirstily at the water. When she was finished, he reached over unthinkingly and scratched her behind the ears. He realized what he was doing, froze, then pulled his hand back.

"Sorry," he muttered. "Force of habit."

She cocked her head in puzzlement, then gave him a wide grin and woofed softly. Why'd you stop? Go ahead and pet the cute doggy.

He grinned back, amused at how sassy this new Yellow was. Speaking of which… "I suppose you must be wondering how I knew where to find you," he said with studied casualness, carefully watching her reactions.

Her grin faded and her head lowered for a moment. Then she looked up him, her expression sharp and intent.

"A friend of yours came to me in a dream. A guy named Kiko. He asked—no, he begged me to help you, since he knew that the street where your den was tended to flood at the slightest downpour."

Her eyes went wide as her mouth dropped open. He did that? For me? Really?

It's true then. She is human. Holy shit, he thought, careful not to let any of his own shock show on his face. Up until that moment, a part of his mind had remained deeply skeptical despite the recent events and felt ten shades of embarrassed to find himself talking like this to Yellow—as if fully expecting the dog to comprehend what he was saying and reply in kind. Worse, it made him feel like the impressionable, crybaby kid he once was, who believed his grandmother's tales and the outlandish superstitions the townspeople fed him out of fun. But her reactions were too on point for a normal dog. What he'd just said would've been pure nonsense to any other dog—or to any human, for that matter—but Yellow had responded to it as if it somehow made perfect sense to her.

"He had a friend with him. Yellow, to be exact," he went on, feeling like a scientist in a laboratory observing a specimen that had just exhibited a most unexpected ability.

This time, the confusion and wariness on the dog's face was unmistakable—and unmistakably human.

Gio leaned toward her, his elbows planted on his knees. "I know you're not Yellow or even a dog. I know that you're a human inside Yellow's body. No, no, it's okay, don't be scared. I won't tell anyone," he added hastily when she shrank away from him, ears pinned back against her head. "You're safe with me, I promise. But I wish there was a way for you to tell me who you are so I can help you get back to your own body."

She blinked at him a few times, then her body gradually relaxed and she frowned up at him, ears cocked forward. At least she'd stopped looking as if she expected him to haul her over to the church to be exorcised, he noted with some relief. She rumbled low in her throat.

"Kiko didn't tell me much. There wasn't any time," he replied, guessing what her question was. "He did mention though that Yellow really is... a-and that you agreed to live on in her body for the sake of these little guys." He touched the puppies, gently running his fingers across their small, warm bodies as they pushed up against Yellow's body and made adorable squeaking noises as they nursed. He laughed, distracted by the sheer cuteness of the foursome, then cast an apologetic look at their mother. "Sorry. Is it okay if I…?"

Tail thumping against the floor again, the dog smiled and moved her head as if to say, Go ahead. You're their savior, after all.

He smiled back and petted the puppies again, wishing there was enough light for him to see them clearly. "Yellow's puppies. I finally get to see them," he murmured, then pulled back when the sting of tears returned. He cleared his throat and collected his composure. "Anyway, back to your identity. I can't keep calling you Yellow since that's not really your name. So, uh, if I bring you a pen and some paper, do you think you can hold the pen in your mouth and write your name or something?"

She blinked at him again, then she opened her mouth and shut her eyes. It took him a moment to realize that she was laughing at him. "What?" he said defensively. "Okay, let's hear your brilliant idea then."

She rolled her eyes and huffed. Then she got to her feet, shaking the puppies off of her and rumbling a soft warning when a couple of pups stubbornly tried to hang on. She walked past Gio and stopped beside the backpack he'd retrieved from the outpost, then nosed the backpack toward him and shot him a smug look. Here's my brilliant idea: just look through my stuff.

Gio was suddenly grateful for the darkness, which hid his embarrassed blush. "Right. So that's yours, huh? I'd forgotten about that thing."

He tugged the backpack toward him. It was made of heavy black cloth with leather trim, and looked like one of those trendy backpacks sported by some of his female classmates. A thought occurred to him, and he frowned at her in confusion. "Hold on, how is your backpack even here? Did you take it with you when you possessed Yellow's body? Like, just in case there's something in here that you might need as a dog?"

As if the thought had only just occurred to her, she regarded the backpack with puzzlement, then glanced around the darkened lanai as though searching for someone who should've been around to answer the hard questions. Kiko and Yellow, probably, he thought, recalling his dream. Apparently, neither spirit helper nor dog spirit seemed to be present because her expression only grew more perplexed. Then she turned back to him and shook her head. To be honest, I have no idea how this happened.

Gio's gaze dropped down to the backpack in his lap. It felt as real as anything. He shrugged. The way things were going, he'd already breezed past the territory of weird and was well into uncanny now, where the rules of logic got bent into pretzel shapes and backpacks appearing out of the ether at the most convenient times were no big deal.

He set about exploring the contents of the backpack. In the front pocket, he found a can of mints, a pair of sunglasses in a leather case, and a smaller purse containing a couple of tubes of lipstick, a pack of blotting paper, a tube of lotion, a pack of wet wipes, some makeup stuff he couldn't identify, and a couple of sanitary pads. He set the purse aside with alacrity just as the embarrassed dog in front of him barked a warning. In another compartment, he found a pair of earbuds in a case, a bunch of black pens, a pack of about a dozen highlighters, a black leather wallet from which dangled a set of cat-shaped brass knuckles, a school ID with a deep blue lanyard wound around it, and a smartphone. The phone, a sleek black gadget in an equally sleek black case, was a Samsung Galaxy S21, which Gio could identify only because one of his classmates, the son of a governor, had been showing off the fancy new phone his old man had given him some weeks ago, which happened to be the exact same model as this one. He turned the phone on and was momentarily blinded by the field of white that filled the screen. No amount of swiping or restarting could make the phone show anything else, so he turned the phone over and simply used it as a flashlight as he inspected the rest of the bag's contents.

The remaining compartments yielded a few black spiral notebooks, a couple of senior high school textbooks, a college entrance exam reviewer, a couple of paperbacks—The Bell Jar and Collected Poems, both by Sylvia Plath, an iPad in a black case, and a hydro flask—black, of course. The iPad wouldn't turn on at all, so he set this aside as well. He thumbed through one of the notebooks and saw streams of class notes in messy scribbles with lines highlighted with what looked like every pastel color imaginable, along with various doodles at the borders of the pages. After a quick glance at the dog to seek her approval, he opened the wallet, avoiding the pointy bits of its unfriendly-looking accessory. The wallet contained over four thousand bucks—more money than he received as his monthly scholarship stipend—a Timezone arcade card, a points card at a place called The Mean Bean Machine, and a gold credit card.

Putting the wallet away, he picked up the school ID and studied it by the light of the broken phone. The name Claire Bennett Razon Jimenez leaped out at him, as did the words Catherine of Siena High School and Grade 11-Peace, a birth date that indicated she was two years older than him, and a home address located in one of the poshest neighborhoods in the entire metropolis. In one corner of the ID was a photo of a dead-eyed, unsmiling girl whose sallow face was nearly overwhelmed by heavy masses of black hair radiating from her head despite the heroic efforts of a teal hair band that looked as if it belonged to another person.

He stared at the photo for a while, then set the ID aside and pulled out the photos he'd found in an inner compartment of the wallet. These photos appeared to be more recent and were taken at one of those arcade photo booths. There were three sets of pictures. One set featured the girl named Claire smirking at the camera while a short-haired, brightly smiling girl posed cutely beside her. In the second set, Claire was smiling up at a good-looking guy who had his arms around her shoulders. Gio paused at the sight of the guy, thinking he'd seen that obnoxious quirk of the eyebrows, that toothpaste-ad grin, and that the arrogant jut of the chin before—in his classmate, whose Dad the Governor had bought him a brand new phone for no other reason than he just casually asked for it. Somehow, Gio found himself liking this guy in the photo about as much as he liked his classmate, which was to say not at all.

The last photo was of all three of them together, with the short-haired girl and the guy making silly faces on either side of Claire, who was again smirking at the camera with her arms crossed in front of her chest. Gio stared the longest at this photo—at the girl named Claire specifically. Unlike her unflattering ID photo, she didn't look as if she'd been dragged out of bed and forced to have this photo taken at gun point. Instead, her hair had been trimmed to mid-neck length—fluffy, ink-black and scarlet waves that framed her small, triangular face while her uneven bangs drew attention to her upturned, cat-like brown eyes, which twinkled with suppressed laughter despite her cool, can't-be-bothered stance.

She's pretty cute, Gio thought reluctantly. This thought was cut short when the dog snatched the photos right out of his hand and threw them aside so that they fluttered to the floor, then stomped on them until her claws had torn them up. In his surprise at her rather forceful reaction to the photos, he dropped the phone face-down in his lap so for a moment he couldn't see anything as his eyes adjusted to the return of the darkness.

He heard her snarl at the photos, then the sound tapered off into a sad whine. "Let me guess: an ex-boyfriend of yours?" he asked dryly.

"Try ex-boyfriend and ex-best friend. As it turned out, I was the third wheel in that photo."

"Whaddahell?!"

Gio's shocked expletive was echoed by a startled canine yelp and the clatter of claws against the floor—the dog jumping backward at the sudden sound of a girl's voice producing an equally dry reply. Frozen silence fell upon them as they both waited for something else to happen, and when nothing did, Gio peeled himself from the wall and gingerly picked up the phone, where the voice had clearly come from.

"W-w-wait a minute, is that my voice? Why is my voice coming out of my phone? What the fuck is going on here?" the same girl demanded shakily—again, from the phone's speaker—while the dog whined in confusion. Gio turned the phone over. The white screen of death was gone. Instead, the phone's camera seemed to have activated, as all he could see was his legs clad in shorts. On a hunch, he pointed the phone's camera straight at the dog, as if he was taking a picture of her. What he saw in the phone's screen, however, was not a thin, yellow dog but a girl standing in front of him, her body tense, her hands fisted at her sides. She was dressed in a white uniform blouse with her school's logo on the left side of her chest, a blue plaid skirt that ended just above her knees, short black socks and black loafers. Her wavy black hair had grown a little longer since the time the photos were taken, brushing the tops of her shoulders, the scarlet streaks around her nape easily concealed by the rest of her hair if needed. She was of medium height and somewhat on the curvy side, which was unexpected since her personality seemed to suggest thin and sharp. Her brown cat-eyes were wide and bewildered and quickly turning angry, and her pale skin looked nearly ghostly in the gray murk of the slowly lightening sky.

Ghostly. Gio swallowed against the hysterical laugh rising up in his throat. Poor choice of words there.

"Hey, stop gawking at my damn phone and say something, will you?" the girl in the phone snapped while dog barked sharply at him.

A grin wobbled on Gio's face and the next moment, he lost the battle to hold his laughter in check. Translation, he thought, amazed and amused and punchy from lack of sleep, fatigue, hunger and repeated assaults on his sense of reality. Translation: I don't need to translate dog-speak because this magical smartphone here will be doing it for me.

He watched the girl's scowl deepen through the phone screen, then lowered the phone in time to see the dog stalk over to him and plant a paw on his knee as if trying to shake some sense into him. He pressed a fist against his mouth to muffle his snorts of laughter as it hit him how insane this whole situation was. Forget uncanny. He was on a grand tour of Bizarro-Land now, where angels rode fancy sports bikes, spoiled rich princesses turned into dogs, and Samsung phones became the medium between the real and spirit worlds.

"Hey." When the dog glowered at him—as did the girl in the phone who was kneeling in front of him—he held his hand out to her, palm up. "Shake," he said, fighting back his grin.

"You—are you seriously trying to piss me off?" the girl in the phone said as the dog in front of him pressed her ears back and growled warningly.

He shook his head and continued to hold his hand out. "Not really. I just want to shake your paw. You can do that much, right?"

Girl/dog gave him a look that indicated that her opinion of his general intelligence had just sunk lower than her water-logged den. Then she huffed exasperatedly and placed her paw in his hand. "Fine, whatever. Shake my paw if you want to," she muttered.

His hand closed tightly around her paw. "Since you didn't bother to ask, the name's Gio," he drawled. "Nice to meet you, Miss Claire. Welcome to Puláng Bató, your home away from home."