Just As You Are

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Chapter Nine

ZEL

“You have blueberry sauce.”

“Where?”

She glanced up from her plate, licking the black-red sauce off her little fingers, leaving smudges on her left cheek. I pointed to my left cheek, and watched her rub her right one, totally missing the smudge. Then I scooted closer—wary of the fact that Ian was watching us from the top of a tree, and removed her hand off her cheek.

Lilium stared at me. Her dimples shone with a smile that made my body feel warm as if I was basking under the sun. With the back of my hand, I rubbed her other cheek gently, erasing any trace of blueberry sauce on it.

“You know, Zel, I’m so happy,” she said.

I tilted my head in confusion and asked, “How does happy feel like?”

And Lilium didn’t waver to answer my weird question because to me, to feel was something insignificant, and the only emotion I’ve known was the one I’ve always lived with.

Pain.

Lilium swept her bangs backward and fixed them with a hairclip before answering. “Happy is when someone you like brings you a gift, or makes your favorite meal. It is when you do something you like, or when you have a good night’s sleep, or when you know that someone who loves you cares about you. Happy is when someone hugs you.”

I stared at her. I didn’t know any of these things. I didn’t know how happy felt like. “I don’t understand,” I said.

She wrinkled her nose in thought then beamed at me. “I know!” Her voice squeaked with excitement. “Happy feels like the warmth from the sun. Like this time we’re spending together.”

My eyes grew wide.

“And like when we play tag and eat blueberries.”

“So . . . I’m feeling happy . . . ?”

“Zel, you’re smiling, of course you’re happy.”

I was smiling. But I felt so badly like crying, so I couldn’t say anything but this.

“Hug me.”

And she did.

“Tabitha. Tabitha. Tabitha. TA-BI-THA!”

“Shut up! The entire student body knows my name now!”

It’s not like I wanted to yell but— “My back. My. BACK!”

“Stop whining like a young, pampered lady! With your lack of spirit, you’ll never be acknowledged as a starting member of the soccer team!”

Tabitha, my only classmate who actually acknowledges my existence, is digging her palms into my back, and yelling close to my head over the noise as she helps me do stretches. I can’t reach my toes yet, but constant practice will definitely help me polish this.

It’s PE session, and year-two students had gathered inside the indoor gym, waiting for news from Coach Paula.

“You said it! It’s a soccer team, not American football!” I mutter. She’s about to break my ribs! I wonder why the scars on my back haven’t started bleeding yet. “No one is coming for my ribs and no one wants me this flexible.”

She puts her hands in prayer position and her voice comes out oddly calm. “Blessed are the flexible, for they shan't be bent out of shape.”

I sigh, hoping it would reach the other end of the gym where someone would pick it up and come to my rescue. “For the love of God, stop spouting nonsense! I’m not applying to your yoga community!”

“Fine!” She clicks her tongue at me. “Then take care of your fan base all alone, you prissy princess!”

Ugh. Such a hassle. “Why would a guy like me, who has nothing to do with life, have a fan base in the first place?” I’m trying to erase my existence from the universe, but girls keep popping outta the blue and ogling at me. It makes me sorry for my future girlfriend—that is, if I changed my mind and asked someone out because currently, I’m not willing to.

“I think it’s because of your handsome face and body,” Tabitha says bluntly.

“I’m not handsome,” I say matter-of-factly. I have a hideous scar across my right eye, and my body . . . well, that’s miserable.

She slaps my back. “You’re handsome and you’re being humble about it.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“And you’re mysterious,” she rambles on, “girls love mysteries.”

Hey hey hey! Let’s be clear: I’m not mysterious. I have a terrible past which is no place for fun. I’m full of riddles, and each door in my mind opens upon another mystery. It’s not a chain that has a beginning and an end, it’s a continuous loop.

“Hey, what happened with Mika the other day? You disappeared for a while and when you returned, your hair was all messy.” Tabitha wiggles her eyebrows in a teasing manner. “You did something indecent, didn't you?”

I roll my eyes and lift my eyebrows; I don’t have enough blood in my body to blush. And, why does everyone assume that Lilium and I are an item? I don’t even like her. My hair got messy from all the pulling, and I pulled at it to stop that sudden urge of wanting to touch her. Now I scan the coast, spotting her at the other end with Ian—her twin brother—and the other soccer team members.

Lilium’s bangs are swept back with a hairclip, just like that day, and her pink gym jersey is tied around her waist. They are all hunched over a planner. I can tell they’re discussing the formation for the next training session. I wonder if I’ll experience the feeling of being included in something if I join them.

“Aren’t you supposed to be with them?” I ask Tabitha without taking my eyes off Lilium, but I don’t hear the answer, because I’m busy staring.

As if she had sensed me watching her, Lilium lifts her head in my direction, and our eyes lock briefly before she goes back to her papers. It was only for a few seconds, but it was more than enough to send my heart fluttering. My heart is being weird recently; I wonder if I’m sick or something. And Lilium has been weird too, acting calmer and more composed whether she’s around me or not. When she’d spot me, she would halt whatever she’d be doing for a few moments and stare at me blankly, then resume her life as if I were an illusion.

That day at the infirmary, we were so close, and she was so beautiful, so vulnerable to the point I was about to freak out. I couldn’t touch her; I was so scared I might hurt her for a lifetime, just like Mama would touch me and make me break and bleed.

But then she was bleeding hotness. Scorching tresses fuzzed about her face, hot breath landed on my palm as I kept her quiet, and grey eyes that shone blue specks stared at me to the point that I couldn’t look at her.

Then the worst thing happened: we really got stuck inside the closet.

“Are you happy?” she had asked when we decided to wait for someone to come and find us.

“I am,” I had said.

She was asking about my letter when I noticed that her hands were cold and her body was shaking. She was hyperventilating, and soon after, she dropped right in my arms.

I panicked.

I didn’t care if I was going to make a scene; all I wanted was to get her outta there safely. I was lucky that Dr. Clarke had left, so I kicked at the door of the closet until the hinges broke and the door fell off. Then I carried Lilium and stepped out, put her on a bed and opened all the windows in the room, all the while with my heart leaping in my chest. I remember the way she tugged on my shirt. Helplessly. Subconsciously. I fought the urge to hug her, to bury my face in her hair, to breathe her lily-scent and tell her I missed her.

My brain was running with wild thoughts that I couldn’t understand, and Mama was smiling in the back of my mind, her metal blades rubbing the back of my neck.

Such a coward.

I was a pool of mixed-up feelings, and I was scared I might hurt her, so I left her there all alone. Reluctantly.

“Attention everybody!”

Coach Paula’s tone startles me, and muffles the voices of the students as they turn in her direction and gather around her. She puts her hands to her hips and tells us that Coach Al, our PE teacher, is absent and that each class with an assigned teacher should start their session.

“Class 2-7 will join class 2-4! That’s all!” she concludes.

Fan-freaking-tastic.

Students with assigned teachers leave the circle like a school of fish, yet we still catch each other’s eyes. Moonlight twinkling orbs stung with pain stare at me until we arrange ourselves in the course of the grounds. Class 2-7 on one side and class 2-4 on the other.

The game? Dodgeball.

Besides scowling at me, Ian is bouncing the ball violently. The game hasn’t even started, but I can see he’s aiming to kick me out as soon as possible.

When we were kids, Ian was a tuft of short red hair over a small head, steel-grey eyes, and a constant deep frown. He was a stubborn and a nasty kid who used to sit on the top of a tree at the edges of the forest, either reading fantasy or snarling at me the moment I approach his sister. At that time, Ian didn’t like the fact that I was closer to Lilium more than he was.

Now we lock eyes, and when Coach blows the starting whistle, the ball disappears from his brutal toss, and I barely manage to escape it.

That was hell crazy! Is he trying to kill me?

I shake my shoulders and brace myself then glance at Lilium. Her eyes are trained on me, and I think I see a bit of blue surfacing in them.

Today, I’m willing to show her that I want her outta my way because, I dunno how to say this . . .

She’s dear to me . . .


MIKA

He called my name.

He said Lilium and something in my heart cracked.

I can sense his gaze on me as I dodge the stupid ball. I hate this game.

It mattered the most to me when someone chose to call me by my middle name. No one ever called me Lilium, not even Sadie.

But Zel did. It was summer and we were playing tag, while Ian was reading on the top of a tree. Zel was running after me, and we found this exotic flower that had petals of blue color on the outside and white color on the inside. It looked so odd we had to stop and admire it. Then Zel said this to me: “Lilium, look! It’s just like ya. It’s a lily, a flower like ya.”

I remember my heart had beaten at an insane rate, and that when we returned, my brother was already coming down with fever. He punched Zel square in the face before passing out, and I had to give him a piggyback ride home back then. Ian was always the sick one.

Even after he moved out, Zel’s voice kept replaying in my mind, and the way he would tip his head backward and smile was a constant picture in the back of my head. His smile was like a spring flower blooming. I could see how it came from deep inside to light his eyes and spread into every part of him. I could hear it in his voice, in the way he said my name and the way he relaxed.

It was beautiful.

I miss him. And because he’s been away for so long, it’s as if a piece of the world has broken away, and I have to do something to glue it back.

Now, as the number of players in both teams drops, Ian and Zel keep scowling at each other and aiming at one another whenever one of them gets the ball. They’re freaking scaring me! And this is not good. I’m practically friendless since Marsha and Akuni dropped out; and Kiki, on the other hand, is sitting on the bench with a small smile on her face. She said she will sit and watch us then try playing in the next round; but I think she decided to pass because, apparently, she bruises like a peach.

It was a tough week for all of us after all, especially Ian.

My brother has an anger threshold. Levels one through eight? He yells like the rest of the Roselies. Nine and above? He goes silent.

He wasn’t mad at me because I didn’t tell him that Zel is enrolling at our school. Not at all. We talked that day, and I told him that Zel is fine—I skipped the hiding-in-the-closet and the passing-out part because, seriously, that would have cost us blood—and I promised not to bother him.

But that wasn’t everything. I knew he was partly mad with Kiki. He didn’t say anything about it anyway, but locked himself up in his room and stayed up all night. His vibes were all over the place, jumbling with my thoughts to the point that I couldn’t sleep either. On top of that, he remained grumpy for a couple days, spacing out during sessions, and disappearing between them. I didn’t have to ask him what was wrong.

“Just go and check up on her,” I said, pointing at Kiki’s desk.

He took a long breath then walked over to the door, stopping and turning to give me a hug, and then he left the class and skipped school for the rest of the day. It surely was a hassle to cover for him, but it was cute to see my brother being anxious around someone and for someone.

“Ouch, Mika!” Upon my toss, a voice yelps. It’s Clara, one of the soccer team members. “Can’t you be gentler?” she asks with a pout.

I laugh. “I’m sorry, rules are rules.”

Everybody on the sides claps twice before yelling, “You’re out!” while Coach keeps tabs on who lost and who is still playing because she has nothing else to do, and because Coach Al is not here to flirt with her. If you ask me, we could have used the time to practice soccer instead of playing this stupid game.

“Mika! Focus!” Ian yells from behind.

I flinch and spin around. “It’s just a game, loosen up!”

“It’s not a game for that person!” Despite the distance, I could see his eyes shimmering with a bit of blue.

I know who that person is, and I turn to the front where Zel is bouncing the ball and studying me.

because you’re dear to me . . .

His gaze flickers over me, warm honey hues and deep caramels spinning in his eyes, the droplets of sweat caught in his hair sparkling against the light. It costs me one look at him before my heart goes pouncing, making a little bit of guilt pour into my chest. The scar across his right eye, despite hiding behind his light hair, stares back at me as a persistent reminder of how stupid it was of me to meddle.

I take a deep breath and quickly push the stirring feeling away. Zel said he can’t be with me, otherwise I’ll get hurt, but something inside me tells me he’s lying. Something deep is telling me that he wants to be by my side. That I need to stay close to him, to be by his side too, to take care of him and protect him from the monsters clawing at him.

The problem is that I’ve known more than I should know about him.

I’ve meddled too much.

And it’s going to kill us both.

I swallow the lump in my throat and tug at the lily around my neck tightly, watching as Zel’s eyes twinkle. For now, I have to focus. Since he’s here, I have plenty of time to hunt him down and force him to talk to me. We still have a lot to say and do, and I’m carrying a lot on my shoulders. I need to put this weight down.

I’m not giving up on him. It was a promise after all. It seems I have to bother him.

I don’t have to look behind or yell to make him hear me. “Help me tie this,” I whisper to my brother.

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