This year’s Fictory is in partnership with BRUMULTIVERSE, a fictional multiple universe with dimensions, realms and parallel realities where amazing stories happen. All fics use the prompt: “The Main Character wakes up on the first day of school, late for their classes in a university to which they don’t remember enrolling.”
Ann was the type of person who saw the world through the lenses of her camera. Like an extension of her vision, her camera allowed her to see and appreciate things people otherwise overlooked—ants courageously crossing the countertop, matching pairs of shoes by the doorstep and the twinkle in a child’s eyes when hearing the family car arrive. She believed the true beauty of life is unveiled in these little things.
Ann also believed in the equilibrium of the universe’s energy—that for every good thing, a bad thing appears to balance them out. That was why, during her seventh birthday party, she anticipated something bad was going to happen when she received her first camera.
The incident played vividly in her head. From blowing out candles and unwrapping her presents, she found herself being questioned in front of all her party guests. All fifty pairs of eyes scrutinized her.
“Ann, just tell me the truth. I won’t get mad,” a sweet voice told her.
“Just admit that you were making it up. You saw nothing.” With every word, the voice sounded more shrill, more nervous.
“Don’t embarrass me here!” The shout erupted, causing a deafening explosion in Ann’s mind.
She sat up, gasping for air. As the first few seconds of consciousness kicked in, she realized that it was all a bad dream. It was just a bad dream.
Ann sank back into bed, feeling around for something to curl up with. She really needed something cuddly to shake off the nightmare. What greeted her searching hands were a bunch of fluffy pillows. She relished in the marshmallow-smooth texture for a second before realizing that something was odd. Her pillows were spongy and misshapen. These were not hers.
She opened her eyes once again and adjusted to the light. Looking around, she realized she wasn’t in her bedroom. She was pretty sure that, just like the pillows, she didn’t own the mauve cotton duvet she was under. She was also certain she would remember if her parents decided to upgrade her space with a massive window covered by layers of chiffon curtains, a sky painted ceiling with gold moulding on the sides, furniture and decor like coffee tables, rugs and foot stools and a study setup with her own desktop computer. Compared to her bedroom, this room was also bigger by a ton of square meters.
On that note, what the heck?
She searched for her phone to check for any clues. On the flip side, Ann found it inside one of the bedside table’s drawers. On the down side, its battery was empty so she had no way of contacting anyone about her whereabouts.
She looked around again for anything helpful. That’s when she remembered the idle computer on the other end of the room. In a snap, Ann got out of bed and rushed to it.
She turned the unit on and in an instant, a message flashed on screen:
Welcome to Berkeley-Reagan University, Ann La Vanguardia!
If you are ready for the orientation, press the ˽ spacebar key in your keyboard.
Ann squinted. Berkeley-Reagan University? Orientation? Was she still dreaming?
Without giving it much thought, she pressed the spacebar button. As soon as she did, the computer shut down and someone knocked on her door.
Suddenly aware that she was in her Hello Kitty pajamas and that her hair was in disarray, Ann hesitated to answer but the person on the other side knocked again.
“Miss La Vanguardia?” a voice called out. “I was notified that you would like to start your orientation?”
Finally gaining presence of mind, Ann rushed to her door. She leaned closer to the gap between the door and the wall and spoke.
“Umm,” she mumbled. “I think you have the wrong person.”
“Miss Ann Luna La Vanguardia? Sixteen? Resident of Batangas?” the person asked.
Ann took a deep breath. “Okay. You have the right person. But I think I clicked on the thing by accident.”
After a few seconds of silence, the voice spoke up again. “Miss, I think it would be easier to talk about this if you opened your door.”
With that, Ann reluctantly unlocked the door and turned the knob. Peering from the other side was a girl her age wearing a white polo-blouse underneath a black coat bearing the BRU logo and a plaid skirt in different shades of purple. Hair in a tight ponytail and an iPad in her hand, it was obvious that the girl was significantly more put together than Ann.
“You’re not ready,” the girl pointed out.
Ann looked down on the floor “Sorry. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be ready for.”
“Don’t worry about it, Miss,” the girl entered the room. “I can do the orientation right here and then you can get dressed after.”
“Call me Ann, please,” she extended her hand for a shake.
The girl took it. “Hello, Ann. I’m Ember, your room attendant.”
“Room attendant? I’m in a hotel then?” Ann asked.
“Not exactly,” Ember answered. “Let’s talk on the couch.”
She walked towards what looked like a plain wall. There, she pressed a button on the wall and a fold out couch mounted behind the wall expanded.
Ann cocked her head to the side. Just a minute ago, she was waking up from a nightmare. Now, she’s being bossed around in her nighties. She wasn’t exactly going to speak up about it but it was just a lot going on for one morning.
She followed the room attendant nonetheless. Once they were both seated, Ember turned the iPad screen towards Ann. With a tap, her senior high school graduation photo came up along with an animated welcome banner.
In her forced preppy-professional tone, Ember said, “Congratulations! You have been awarded an academic scholarship to Berkeley-Reagan University. Like I mentioned earlier, I’m Ember, your room attendant for your first day in school.”
Ann raised her hand but Ember shook her head. “Questions later.”
She continued, tapping the iPad to show a map of the campus. “As our vision-mission states, Berkeley-Reagan University is a premiere international institution in business, arts and sciences. The courses offered by the school are divided into two departments—Berkeley Business and Sciences and Reagan Arts and Humanities. As per your application, you are admitted to Communication Arts under RAH.”
Ember then took out a small box from her pocket and gave it to Ann. The latter opened the box to find a gold-plated smart watch, identical to the one the former was wearing. Ember then took out a small envelope from her coat pocket and handed it to Ann. Inside the envelope was a BRU-exclusive credit card.
“These will be your best buddies on campus. The smart watch contains everything you need to know: your class schedule, the campus map, the academic and social calendar, the student handbook, the freshman primer… it’s all here. Then, of course, use this credit card to pay for purchases within the campus.”
“Any questions?” Ember finally asked.
As Ann was trying to sort out her thoughts, her smart watch beeped.
“Oh, that’s your alarm. Since you got up late, you have only 30 minutes until the general assembly and campus tour,” Ember told her. “Let’s make this Q&A quick. You still need to get dressed. Just blurt out all your questions and I’ll do my best to answer them.”
Anne nodded, took a deep breath and quickly ran through everything she could think of at the moment. “Where am I? Do I get to come back to this room? How did I end up here? Do my parents know that I’m here?”
Panting, Ann had to take a deep breath after her series of queries.
Ember chuckled. “To answer your questions… you are in the West Wing of the Reagan Dormitory. This is where female students stay. Yes, you are allowed to come back to this room. This is your dorm room, after all.”
“This isn’t a five-star hotel room? I’m actually on campus?” Ann interjected.
Ember shook her head. “Nope. This is not a hotel. This is just your dorm room. Wait ‘till you go outside. There’s so much more to gush about.”
“Next question… I don’t know how you got here. I’m just a student like you. Also, I’d like to think that your parents know that you’re here. It would be very strange if they didn’t,” said Ember, raising her eyebrows.
She looked at Ann like the girl was joking. “You can message them. Just connect to the WiFi. Password’s in the freshman primer in the smart watch.”
Ann nodded. That was what she was trying to do in the first place. Of course.
“Any more questions?” asked Ember.
By the tense smile on Ember’s face, Ann could tell she wasn’t up for any more. As if on cue, Ember’s smart watch beeped.
“Oh, that’s my alarm this time. I have to go. Another duty calls,” Ember got up from the couch. “If you have any concerns, you can contact me. I’m number 1 in your smartwatch contacts. You can also call Ms. Maria, the Admin Assistant. She’s the default 0.”
With that, Ember patted Ann on the shoulder and exited the room.
Alone once again, Ann found herself lingering on the couch, still not knowing what to do with her new situation. When people back at her hometown told her college was going to be a big adjustment, they had no idea just what they were saying.
Other than the sudden extravagance she had access to, the weirdest thing about the whole morning was that she couldn’t remember anything about enrolling in BRU. She knew that the university existed. Her high school guidance counsellor mentioned it during their career talk last year, but she couldn’t recall applying to this school at all, more so as an academic scholar. Don’t those things have procedures she should’ve definitely gone through?
Then again, Ember was right about what she said earlier. Her parents must know that she was here. The alternative would be too absurd to even think of. Knowing them, they might’ve even connived with the administration to surprise her about this.
Yes. That must be it.
Ann got up and went to check out the closet. It was located on the right side of the room, just a few steps from the foldable couch. When she opened it, she saw the sets of uniforms for her. In the drawers were her other belongings along with her filming equipment.
Ann smiled to herself. If there was anything from home that she wanted to have wherever she went, it would be her equipment. Now that she had her camera with her, she could finally start being in her element and seeing the day as if it was a movie she was directing.
Taking the chance to snap a photo, Ann rushed to a corner of the room. Backing away as best as she could, she tried capture most of the space. As she continued taking pictures, she felt a warm surge of emotions welling up in her chest. It was beautiful, the subtle way sunlight entered from her new bedroom window, the way the curtains match the sheets and the overall spaciousness of the area. With just herself and her camera, she was finally able to appreciate the beauty in the strange morning that led her here.
A message from Ember interrupted Ann’s photo shoot moment. “e-jeep will be @ dorm entrance. be there 10 mins before time to get a gud seat. ttyl,” it said.
With that prompting, Ann placed her camera on a table and went into the private bathroom adjacent to her room.
After her bath, she combed her hair and put on her uniform, wobbling about as she tried to wear her socks on while standing. Once fully dressed, she stuffed her still dead phone, her wallet and other essentials into a drawstring and also packed her camera in its bag, careful not to forget it. It was going to be a good day to take pictures for sure.
Ann was proven right the moment she stepped out of the room. She found herself in the middle of a long hallway lined by a luster black, plum and gold Persian carpet. The cream walls were accented by muted gold molding and gentle yet pervasive floral patterns. By each door of each room were small Greek pillars with either an urn, porcelain jar or small ceramic sculpture on top of them.
She would’ve loved staying for a while to capture the essence of the space. However, with the threat of being late looming over her head, she only allowed herself to take one photo before running to the lobby.
Once in the lobby, the grandeur of the building revealed itself to Ann even further. The place was practically begging to be photographed. This time, the Greek columns lined the walls from floor to ceiling. Moreover, full-size windows were quaintly covered by mauve damask silk curtains. Muted periwinkle and gold chaise lounge sofas with beige leaf-printed pillows accommodated the numerous students. In the middle of the lobby was a massive teardrop chandelier.
Without thinking, Ann snapped a couple of pictures, playing with the way the chandelier reflected light into her lenses and framing the other students’ experiences using the furniture and ornaments she saw in the room. No one seemed to be giving instructions yet so she still had time.
After a few minutes, a petite woman in her 20’s with a lapel microphone stood in front of the lobby’s doors.
“Attention, all freshmen students! I’m Maria, the Admin Assistant in-charge of your orientation today. First on our agenda is a campus tour,” she said. “Kindly form two lines in front of me so that I can easily guide you to your e-jeepneys.”
On cue, Ann moved with the rest of the group. Albeit a bit regretful that she wasn’t able to snap more photos at the lobby, she was excited to see the rest of BRU. True enough, the campus would provide her plenty of opportunities for shots.
Their first stop for the tour was the Grand Hall. With magnificent arches and intricately designed columns, Ann knew that it was an architectural beauty for the books. She took a couple of pictures as she entered with the other students before being called in for the general assembly.
During the assembly, they were introduced to the school faculty and staff. Ann wasn’t really able to pay much attention except to the dean of student affairs, Mr. George Whitman, who commanded the room’s attention as soon as he entered.
The dean looked like a man in his sixties, fine gray-silver hair on his head and beard. He wore a gray mandarin collared polo underneath his long-sleeved barong with golden paisley prints on its cuffs and evening-black pants that matched his cane. The cane in question was embellished by gold detailing and a crystal blue orb in the middle of its handle grip.
Ann snapped a secret photo when she thought no one was looking her way.
After the assembly, Ann continued to take pictures throughout the campus tour. Because there were a lot of facilities at BRU, there was always something interesting to photograph. She snapped a shot of two friends having a picnic by the lagoon at the world park while trying not to freak out at the notion that her university had a world park. She also captured the moment where a couple of other freshmen pretended to take a bite of a relic at the school museum and the next scene where Ms. Maria ran after them. Some other photos worthy of a mention were the karaoke showdown photo she took of two students belting ballads with their phones as microphones on the theatre stage and a stolen shot of one of the freshmen students falling asleep on a stranger’s shoulder inside the e-jeepney.
After the tour, the students were dropped off at the mess hall for lunch. The mess hall was the official school cafeteria for BRU students. With open-view windows on the left, a glass ceiling on top and two floors of buffet goodness, the mess hall was the perfect venue for students to hang out with friends.
Ann really didn’t have any but she didn’t mind going solo when she had her camera to entertain her. But the universe didn’t exactly agree with Ann’s plan. As she stepped back, she suddenly felt someone hitting her shoulder. She turned to the person behind her and saw a petite girl in a checkered blouse and matching checkered skirt.
“That’s funny, girl, very funny,” she said, hitting Ann’s shoulder a couple more times. Eyebrows raised and nodding, the girl signaled Ann to join in on the supposed conversation.
“Yeah, very funny,” Ann responded, hesitantly.
After fake laughter for good measure, the girl looked around before stopping her giggles and facing Ann.
“Sorry about that. I didn’t want to look awkward,” she said. “First day and all…”
She held out her hand. “I’m Jane, by the way.”
Ann took her hand and shook it. “Ann.”
“Well, I better go, I guess,” Jane said, pointing at random directions. “I’ll just…”
Contradicting what she said, Jane stuck around, fiddling with the hems of her blouse and alternating between looking at the ground and then Ann.
“Did you want to eat lunch together?” Ann asked, succumbing to Jane’s hints.
In an instant, Jane rushed to her side and linked arms. “Why didn’t you say so immediately? For a sec, I was worried you were going to leave me hanging there.”
At that, Jane dragged Ann to the buffet line. Once there, they were greeted by a variety of Asian dishes. On the far left were noodle and soup dishes—from pancit Malabon to cuttlefish geng. In the middle were the big guns—chicken inasal, braised pork and ginger Szechuan beef. Towards the end were an assortment of desserts—mochi, moon cake, and fresh mangoes.
“So what’s the strategy here?” Jane asked Ann.
“Strategy?” Ann furrowed her eyebrows.
Jane nodded. “Are you the type to eat a lot of one dish or the type to sample everything in small amounts?”
“Oh,” Ann replied. “I’m a one dish kind of girl.”
Jane nudged her playfully. “The loyal kind. I get you. I’m usually the loyal type too. But since it’s the first day, I figured I should satisfy my taste buds.”
Jane winked. Coincidentally, as she did so, a group of guys passed by them.
She caught Ann’s gaze and said, “Not that kind of sampling. I meant food.”
Leaning closer, she whispered to Ann, “But I mean, given the chance…”
Ann laughed at Jane, shaking her head.
They were about to move along the line when Ann heard a voice call her. “Ann, is that you?”
She turned around and saw a familiar face walk towards her along with the group of guys that she and Jane were joking about previously. Sporting his luscious curls and wonky eye glasses, Gil Cipriano, Ann’s former classmate, greeted her.
“Hey,” he said, smiling. “I didn’t know you studied here too!”
Ann cleared her throat. “Well, that makes two of us.”
She fiddled with the straps of her camera bag. Gil noticed and pointed it out. “You’re still into photography, I see.”
“Remember our project last year? That fake movie poster?” he said, nudging her.
Ann couldn’t help but chuckle. She imagined the collage of faces she edited and Gil’s unique modeling performance. “Please don’t remind me. Your face was—”
“What do you mean ‘my face?’ I looked perfectly fine in that poster!” Gil insisted.
She shook her head. “Nope. Nope. You looked like you ate rotten fish in that photo.”
“If you ever need a model for decomposing food, you know who to call,” Gil playfully touched her arm.
She suddenly had a great idea. She wasn’t one to indulge in ideas but a chance meeting with Gil Cipriano called for great.
“Well,” Ann brought out her camera, “Why don’t you pose for me right now?”
“Here? With all these people?” Gil pointed to his other friends whom he left chatting at the back.
Ann shrugged. “Inspiration strikes when it strikes. A master photographer has no control over these things.”
Gil furrowed his eyebrows. “Touché. I’m only doing this because you made total sense. For sure.”
Ann was about to tell Gil what to do when Jane cleared her throat. “Excuse me for a moment. I just need to confer with my buddy over here,” she grabbed Ann’s arm and turned away.
“Who was that smooth guy? He’s really cute but please don’t ditch me for him,” Jane said, clinging onto her.
“What? I’m not ditching you. That’s just Gil,” Ann responded.
She glanced at him for a second. Gil was talking to his friends, probably explaining his explanation. He and Ann weren’t particularly close but he was good company whenever he was around.
“If you say so,” Jane told Ann. “Also, I’m liking this take-charge thing you’re doing to Mr. Just Gil. Let’s get it girl!”
“Huh?” Ann felt her cheeks turning red.
Jane didn’t respond and turned back to Gil instead. “You may resume.”
She turned her back and Ann and Gil both laughed a bit.
“You know what? I changed my mind. You’re off the hook.” Ann said, still holding her camera.
“What do you mean? What about my budding career as a movie poster extra?” Gil told her.
“You never run out of comebacks, do you?” Ann quipped. “Well, the line’s already moving up. It would be too dangerous if we held up hungry people.”
“You have your camera out. Might as well take a photo,” he suggested. “Why not take a group photo with our friends? It’s the first day of school and we’d need the memorabilia.”
Jane overheard the conversation and joined in. “Great idea, mister! Call your friends over, let’s do this.”
As everyone was getting into position, Ann lent her camera to a bystander to take their photo. She then found herself dragged in between Jane and Gil, the latter slinging his hand over her shoulder for the pose. He was so close. She felt warmth radiating from him. All she could do was puff her cheeks and smile.
“By the way, I’m a business major at Berkeley. You?” Gil asked after their photo was taken.
“Reagan, Communication Arts,” Ann answered.
“Ah,” Gil said, rubbing the nape of his neck. “That will surely cause some scheduling conflicts. I’ll have my agent contact you.”
Ann shook her head. “Alright. That’s enough.”
Gil held his hands up. “I’ll go. I’ll go. Enjoy your lunch.”
Ann sighed and then turned to Jane. “Sorry about that hold up.”
“What are you apologizing for?” Jane asked. “My takeaway from that conversation was… one, you’re a comm arts student like me and two, you have a crush on that cute boy.”
“Don’t even deny it. I think we’re both too hungry to even protest,” she added.
After lunch, the students were picked up once again by Ms. Maria and the e-jeeps for the batch orientation by course. Since she and Jane were together, Ann expected the afternoon to go by like a breeze. However, she was surprised yet again when all the freshmen communication students were brought to the television studio for a special task.
The television studio rivaled professional ones in terms of the equipment provided. It had its own control room complete with audio mixers, monitors and lighting consoles. The filming area itself had green screens set up, cameras on standby and boom mics and lights hanging from the ceiling.
Once all the students had settled in the studio, a professor stepped forward. “Wearing five-inch heels, she took a long stride to the center and said, “Good afternoon, communication students. I will be your Broadcasting teacher, Ms. Monique.”
She continued. “For your first day as students of the media, you’ll be given a challenge. Come up with a five-minute broadcast skit based on this theme—Modern Day Titanic, a twist to a classic romance film. Feel free to use whatever equipment or software you need in this studio. There are also props and costumes in the back room that you can use.”
Ms. Monique asked the students to count from one to five and moved them to their groups. Then, without any further explanations, they sat down in a corner and watched the chaos ensue.
Being communication students meant that the chaos happened. The self-proclaimed directors of each group talked over each other. Designated actors also discussed their script suggestions at the top of their voices. Ann could even hear Jane who was in another group, debating amidst the noise. In contrast, she moved towards the back, tinkering and exploring the cameras they would be using. As soon as the class was divided, she immediately volunteered to be part of the camera crew just so she could have that privilege.
Two hours passed just like that, with students rapidly typing in their laptops and poking buttons in the control room. Ms. Monique then asked everyone to settle down for the presentations.
Ann’s was the first group to present. Their group leader was a bit avant-garde with their concept. She imagined the sea captain to be a vampire and a Yeti to swim in the water with Jack and Rose. The other members of their group didn’t argue with the idea. Ann kept quiet as well. That led them to their eventual downfall.
“Look out!” Ann heard someone shout.
She peeked from behind one of the studio cameras, only to realize that a silicon anchor prop was flying towards her. With only half a second before impact, Ann had the sense to duck down before it could hit her right in the face.
At the sound of the prop flopping down the floor, Ann released a sigh of relief. She got up, finding her balance, and then positioned herself behind the camera once again.
However, just as she was steadying herself, another unfortunate event happened. Yeti suit man slipped as he struggled to walk in his attire, which inevitably ripped. Bystanders were about to rush to his aid when they heard screaming.
“Stop!” the group leader screeched.
Surprised, Ann instinctively covered her ears with her hands. In doing so, she hit the camera in front of her and it fell off the tripod and onto the floor. Everyone froze upon impact.
At the sound of the camera lens shattering into dust, Ann’s head went into overdrive. Everyone was looking at her and the mess she made. She looked down on the floor instead and tried to control her pounding heart.
As the air around her grew thin with tension, she couldn’t help but recall the nightmare she had this morning. It felt the same—the way everything turned sour very quickly, the way she suddenly fell into a negative light. She was having a great, albeit initially weird, day so far. Then, she messed it up, just like how she messed up her seventh birthday. Did the connection even make sense? Why was she thinking of the old memory now? Ann wasn’t sure. All she knew was that this misfortune led her back to feeling that way she did back then.
Ann was waiting to be scolded by her teacher when something unexpected happened. Ms. Monique clapped. “Bravo! Bravo!”
“Well, that took longer than expected,” she said to the shell-shocked students in front of her. “I thought for sure someone would break something within the first five minutes of class. Your group’s well behaved at this rate.”
She placed her hand on Ann’s shoulder and whispered in her ear. “Sit down, dear. Don’t worry about this. We’re insured.”
Ms. Monique also instructed the rest of the class to sit down. Once everyone settled down, she stood in front of them again. “At this point, you might be fully convinced that your broadcasting teacher is strange.”
She continued. “But hear me out. The purpose of this exercise isn’t really to test your knowledge or skills in media. You’re babies fresh out of high school! Instead, I wanted to simulate the kind of environment you will have as media students.”
“In this industry, everything will be loud, chaotic. In every corner of the room, something will be happening. But despite all of that, you have to find your place, shut down the noise and communicate,” she said, flinging her arms around.
“Consider today your walk across fire. Think about how you responded to chaos today. Did you like how you acted? What would you have done differently?”
That night, when Ann went back to her room for bed, she still thought back to what Ms. Monique said and how she acted in the studio. When the camera broke, her first instinct was to freeze and go into a weird rabbit hole of darkness in her mind. She didn’t like the person she became.
But there was something comforting about her professor’s words. “Find your place. Shut down the noise. Communicate.” Ann never thought of those alternative solutions. She had always been stuck in her head, in her worries instead of being able to work through them. Of course, it was also supremely comforting that she was not reprimanded and was given a learning experience instead.
Ann picked up her camera and browsed through all the pictures she took. In a way, the whole day has been hectic, just as how her first class has been. It had been a lot to navigate through an unfamiliar campus and sort all the different emotions she felt. Fortunately, she had her camera with her which, she realized, allowed her to shut down her inner noise and focus on appreciating the beauty around her. She was able to capture the beautiful architecture in BRU along with new and familiar people she met here.
Ann was the kind of person who saw the world through the lenses of her camera, but maybe, she could also learn to communicate to others through it. One day.
With these thoughts, Ann placed her camera on the bedside table and flopped on her bed. She wasn’t sure why she was in Berkeley-Reagan university, and she doesn’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing. Still, she feels in her gut that this was a good place to be in. She’s really excited to eat lunch with Jane again, to coax a photoshoot out of Gil and even to fall prey to another wacky lesson from Ms. Monique. Most importantly, she wants to grow and learn to be a better person. ☁️