“Ah . . .” I barely made it through this class without bursting a valve. My heart is beating like crazy in there.
I glance up. Mika is talking to me. She’s talking to me, right? Why is she talking to me? Is it because I helped her? Well, it wasn’t that big deal to keep acting kind to me.
“You too, come on. Let go!” She pumps her fist in the air and beams at me, while I hover over the thought of leaving alone to the next class or going along with them. What am I gonna lose?
I join them.
“So, we’re going to the lab now,” Mika says as we make our way through the aisle. “Thanks for earlier,” she adds with a warm smile. “It really helped me out. I’m so happy I didn’t get a detention. It was going to be like the end of the world to me.” Then she exchanges a look with Ian, and I bite back a smile.
Everything is going good with me. I gave Ian back his jacket without melting into a puddle of my own embarrassment, and helped Mika during Math class today.
When Mr. Brown was about to write her a detention because she couldn’t answer his question, she jumped outta her seat, demanding that she didn’t want one. Apparently, she’s one of those students with constant detentions and last-minute perfect scores. She looked around the class frantically, asking for help, and I couldn’t bear the look in her eyes, so I thought here goes nothing, and shoved my notebook in her direction, pointing out the answer.
She was so grateful of me, and the smile on her face was so warm. Everyone went on with complimenting me and saying good things about me. I felt content.
I was changing.
“Hey, isn’t that stone?”
The voice hits me in shockwaves, throwing me a few years back. Here is my living nightmare, coming back from the depths of my unconsciousness. Two girls and a guy I recognize from middle school start talking about me, gathering a good audience.
“She’s slow and always zones out.”
I try to tune them out, but it’s no use. The voices are already there, replaying like a broken tape, and a familiar feeling resurfaces.
“She would always stand still in gym class. Such a pain in the ass. She never talks and always freezes up. It was easy to tease her all the time.”
Fear claws its way out. It curls up inside me and clings to my ribs, settling uncomfortably in my chest. I’m mortified, frozen to the spot, and I can’t breathe. It’s a trauma. I can’t believe it’s happening, and in front of everyone. I stand soaking in the cruel laughter, my head beginning to spin. I’ll never live this down as long as I’ll live; I’m painfully outta place.
That’s when I turn on my heels and do what I always do.
I run away.
I close the door behind me, and put my keys back in my bag.
“Kiki, sweetie, there you are!” Mama appears at the kitchen door in a pink apron with a yellow chick on the pocket, carrying a dripping ladle in her right hand.
“How was your day?” she asks.
It’s the same question she asks every day. I wanna tell her the ladle is dripping mushroom soup on the floor, but whatever. She will probably notice that later, when it’s too late. So, I put on a fake smile, and tell her it was fun. I can’t tell her what really happened, she will definitely freak out.
“Really? Then how about inviting your friends over next time? You’re not studying every day so it’s fine, right?”
I give her a quizzical look that she won’t even intercept; I can’t tell her that I don’t have friends either.
I turn to take the steps to the second floor when Papa pipes up from his position in front of the TV, “Sometimes I see students from your school on the way to work, they seemed kinda brash and showy to me.” He mutes whatever channel he’s watching and looks over his shoulder. “You sure you’re okay sweetie? We can still transfer you to another school if you like.”
I switch into defense mode and try a smile. “I’m fine, it’s because I like it that I go there.” Then I walk to the living room and kiss the top of his head, “Thanks for worrying about me, Papa,” and start toward my room.
My parents are the definition of overprotective.
While she was giving birth to me, Mama and I passed through an emergency that had traumatized her. So from my early years, I’ve been spoiled by my parents’ constant love and care, and grew up into this negligent yet self-responsible personality who only cares about herself and has no clue on how to interact with others.
I lie on my bed with my eyes closed, pulling my knees to my chest.
Everybody hated me because I was annoying. Everybody hated me and called me Stone. So what? Stop thinking about it. If I keep thinking about it, it’ll bring me nothing but pain. It’d be better if I hardened myself and became as cold and stiff as a stone.
I pull the blanket over my head as his voice runs in loops through my mind.
When the show was over, Ian followed me with an emotionless expression on his face, and I thought, this is not the same kind person who helped me the other day and apologized to me again and thanked me for returning his jacket. I could till smell it, that fresh lemon scent with a hint of refreshing mint.
“React someway,” he had said, his demeanor not changing even slightly. “Ask someone.”
I think I was staring at him blankly because at that moment I couldn’t feel a thing. My heart had crumpled into smithereens, and my chest had felt like a hollow cave. I remember his grey eyes growing wide for a bit then he maintained that solid composure.
“Ask someone for help,” he had said.
I remember thinking, who should I ask? Who would even care to help? My heart didn’t beat at that moment, my chest didn’t ache. My mind didn’t go numb thinking about it.
And I remember that I didn’t give him another look.
I just brushed by him and walked away.
I’m kinda off today. I have no desire to do anything. When I get to my seat after morning assembly, I find Ian is in his chair, staring out the window.
It’s getting colder with each passing day, and the view outside is utterly spectacular, but nothing will ever pull me up from my hollow pit of self-loathing. Nothing will make my heart beat now. Not even the golden hue of autumn merging with the blue sky and this redhead staring at it.
I’m positive he heard me when I pulled my chair, but he didn’t turn my way or say anything. I didn’t say anything too, and we sat in awkward silence with his voice rotating in my mind.
Mrs. Lopez arrives at class, says her morning greetings, and begins sorting her sheets, and that’s when Ian finds something to do. He takes out his Spanish book and indulges her in a spelling practice as if I’m not even here.
It shouldn’t bother me.
None of it is my business and none of it should mean anything to me. Right?
“I wanna change . . . I wanna . . . change . . .”
My eyes flutter open, and I blink a few times to adjust to the dim light of the library. Huh? Someone’s here. I bolt up and instantly meet his eyes. He’s looking at me with the same blank expression, his mouth set in a hard line, hands in his jeans’ pockets.
“What are you going to do about it?” he asks.
Ian? What is he doing here, and when did I fall asleep? Did he watch me sleeping? What is he talking about?
Upon the sound of clattering, Ian whips around, and I break out from my chair. I dunno how I know it’s about me, but the sound of scornful laughter makes my nerves buzz. I look around, my bag is missing. I made a mistake by falling asleep in a den of beasts. I run out the library, through the aisle, and to the lockers where two girls are standing and smiling smugly. I recognize them immediately; they’re Ashley and Olivia from yesterday. When they see me coming, they snicker and run away.
My locker is a mess when I open it. Everything in my bag has been dumped inside, my pens and pencils are missing, my notebooks and papers are torn and phrases are written all over them. Go to a nursing home you freak. Annoying b*tch. The walls of my locker are smeared with purple and red lipstick, photos of me with my eyes crossed red hanging from its roof.
Stone it reads at the far wall of the locker.
It shouldn’t bother me. Things like that had happened before, right? It shouldn’t bother me. I shouldn’t give a damn about it.
But why does each breath I take spread like small needles through my chest? Why is my heart beating so loud that I can’t seem to clear my mind and think? Why are my feet moving on their own? Why can I feel Ian’s eyes staring at me in the back of my head?
I grab my keys and shut my locker.
I need to run away. So far away where no one can know where I am.
“Oh, my sweet little daughter.”
It’s Mama’s voice. It sounds close. Where am I? Why is it dark?
“Is she okay? Do I need to call the doctor?”
“No, no. She’s gonna be fine.” Mama’s warm hand covers mine.
My body is hot. Is it fever?
“You go to work honey, you’re gonna be late,” she says to Papa.
“Are you sure?” Papa asks.
“Yes, yes, just go,” she says, her voice soft.
Obviously, after the humiliating events that happened to me this week, and despite the fact that I willed myself not to think about it, I failed. The memory would be seared into my brain forever, ready to pop up and torment me again whenever I’m in a quiet moment. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, voices and colors swam in my mind then I came down with a fever.
I was deluding myself. I can’t change.
“It’s thirty-nine degrees,” Mama says. She’s sitting on a chair beside my bed, brushing matted hair outta my face. “I’ll make your favorite mushroom soup, and run a hot bath for you. Rest well, sweetie.” Then she pulls the blankets up to my chin and leaves the room.
It’s actually good that I got a fever because if I didn’t, I was planning on skipping school today. I can’t fight anymore. I don’t even bother checking my phone. I don’t have friends, so no one’s gonna call me. Mama’s right; I should rest and sleep in today. Wait, what’s that noise? It’s a tapping sound. Ugh . . . I pull the blankets over my head; this fever is making me hear things. Like faint taps or something. I open one eye. I’m not hearing things, it’s a real sound.
The sound becomes sharper.
I’m still conscious enough to register that it’s real. I poke my head up the blankets. The sound is coming from the door of my veranda. Oh my God, what if it’s a burglar? Or worse, a bear or something! Should I call Mama? But, what if it’s just a bird tapping its beak on my glass door?
I wrap a shawl over my shoulders, weaving my hair to one side, then slowly crawl outta bed and kneel by the door, realizing that the tapping is real. Sneaking a peek behind my lavender-purple curtain, my stunned eyes lock onto familiar grey ones.
But they aren’t just a grey; this term is far too plain in comparison. I don’t how to explain it, but they’re beautiful. Absolutely beautiful.
Ian looks tired, wasted. His hair is tousled to the back, loose ends falling a bit down his shoulders, and there are small leaves stuck in it. It seems he climbed up our oak tree to get here.
Wait, what is he doing here? I blink.
Open the door, he mouths, and I do.
“W-What are doing here?” I whisper. It would be a huge trouble if Mama caught us!
“What are you doing here?” Ian asks pointedly.
This is my house, smartass.
“Why aren’t you at school?” he adds.
I fumble with the edge of my pajamas—I’m wearing a fuzzy peach-colored pair of pajamas! With little pandas all over it! My face flushes. “I came down with a fever,” I reply. When he doesn’t say anything, I dare a glance at him.
His eyes are wide, his jaw set, reflecting genuine worry. We sit down cross-legged on opposite sides of the door, staring at each other intentionally or unintentionally.
“How did you know I live here?” I ask when it becomes unbearably awkward. It’s easier to talk to him now that we aren’t in school.
“Our homeroom teacher gave me your address,” he mumbles.
“And why did you come?”
Ian rakes a hand through his hair; it looks darker now that the sun is setting. “Are you going to leave things the way they are?” he asks.
I stare at him. I know what he’s talking about. I should say it’s not his business. He’s wasting his time talking nonsense to me. But I can’t tell him anything because I don’t have the guts to.
“You said you wanted to change.”
He heard that? My eyes snap to his. I thought I was whispering it to myself! My face burns, and I wrap my shawl tighter.
“People who want to change don’t run away,” Ian adds.
Yeah, right. What do you know? You are not some kid who always gets dragged around by others. You aren’t their toy to play with. You don’t need to tune out the world all the time to avoid hearing people badmouthing and mocking you. You aren’t some helpless person who can’t stand up for themselves.
You aren’t pathetic.
“If you want to change, you have to start with yourself. You can’t keep hiding behind yourself for your entire life,” Ian says in a calm voice.
Of course I can.
“You can’t keep running away.”
Of course I can.
“You have to face them head-on.” His voice becomes fierce, as if he’s reading my thoughts, and I shy away from him.
“And if you can’t do that by yourself . . .” He trails off and clears his throat. “Then you can at least ask for help. Asking for help is not a weakness. Sitting here and doing nothing about it is the weakness.”
I jerk backward as if slapped on the face, and the truth sinks in as my eyes lock with his. He’s right, I wanted to change, but I kept running away. When the first hurdle popped in my face, I hid and decided to accept my fate. I started building walls between me and other people, whether mean or kind. I’m rejecting anyone, and this is clearly not the way out.
Ian stands up and walks to the railing. “Until you come back, I’ll always be waiting for you, Kiki.”
He says my name as if it’s no big deal, as if hearing it is not running stardust in my veins. As if it won’t make my heart beat for him, and my mind think of him and only him. Ian stands with his back to me, the wind dancing through his hair. I notice how it reflects the orange rays of the sun, and how it turns gold. How the ends curl down his back. I notice the silver piercing in the lobe of his right ear. His squared shoulders. His strong back. Then he pushes his hand through his hair, puts a hand on the railing, and in one swift motion, jumps from my veranda.
I lean over the railing, watching him as he runs from our backyard, the wind blowing against my face, kissing my cheeks red.
I’m having a fever, but for a different reason now.
“Hey Stone! Won’t you go buy us something?”
It’s Ashley. She’s smirking at me, with Olivia and another guy attached to her hips. I give her a look and walk to the vending machine.
“Oh my God, look at her!” She laughs horribly as the machine takes my money. “This freak has really no pride.”
I press the button.
“Only stupid people do things against their will,” Olivia says scornfully. “Such a chicken.”
Second shelf, third bottle to the left. The bottle falls and I take it outta the machine, shaking it forcefully on my way back.
Students from different classes are watching. Ian and Mika and my classmates are watching too, either scattered around in the corridor or clumped together by the windows in the classes. Heat is pumping in my veins, and my heart is beating really fast. I’m scared. But I’m doing it.
I’m there. I’m almost there.
“Oh, My darling, thank you!” Ashley injects a dose of fake kindness into her voice. “Can you open it for me? I can’t open it with these glittering nails.” She waves her hot red nails at me.
My legs tremble, and I hafta do it now before I chicken out. I give the bottle another shake, then open it.
Lemon soda bursts out, splashing the three of them, and the girls start screaming bloody murder.
“Ahh!” Olivia yelps. “It got all over me.”
“I’m all sticky now!” I hear Ashley yell as I start walking away.
“Whoa, That was pretty wild!” the blond girl from my class says.
My head spins. My legs are numb.
“You damned brat! I’ll smash your screwed face!”
My knees give out and I fall on my palms and knees. I did it. I did it. For once I stood up for myself. And now, I don’t have the strength to fight anymore.
I look up. Ian is crouching in front of me, with the same inscrutable expression. He looks briefly behind us then looks back at me. “Do what we talked about. Ask for help.”
“W-Who?” I whisper with a staggered breath.
I’m hopeless. It’s hopeless.
We stare at each other blankly.
No. I can’t. I can’t bring you down with me. You’re so good. You’re so kind and strong. I can’t let you get hurt. Tears well up in my eyes and fall down my face.
“Ah, That again. So annoying.” He stands up and starts walking away from me. He’s already fed up with me.
I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Behind me, Ashley and Olivia are coming in my direction, holding scissors. I touch my hair subconsciously; I can’t allow that to happen again.
In the direction of the light, I yell on the top of my lungs, “Help me!”
He’s right by my side in an instant, pulling me to my feet and hiding me behind his back. I tug at his sweater with all the strength left in me.
“Hey, You smug faces!” he yells. “If you do anything to her again, I’ll never forgive you.”
Breathe in. Breathe out.
“Hey, Kiki, open your eyes.” A soft voice calls. I do. “You’re okay now.” Mika wraps me in a hug and I let her as tears run down my cheeks.
“You’re okay, we are all here for you.” The blond girl joins in too.
Then someone pats by hair.
“Good job out there, Kiki,” Ian says without looking at me, but I can see the smile on his face, and my heart warms.
Sometimes we can’t stand up with our own strength, and whatever we do on our own is not enough. But it’s okay. It’s okay to lean on someone and ask for help. It’s okay to be weak and discouraged. It’s okay to take someone’s hand as long as it’ll pull you up. Even if that person is a stranger.
You were a stranger to me, yet you were someone I looked up for. The feeling of liking you is rushing out the boundaries of my heart, spilling into my chest.
Thank you, Ian, for you are my strength, and I’ll never waver to lean on you.