“Help me tie this.”
I could describe Lilium’s voice as that of an unearthly creature. Small. Soft. Confident. Piercing. Like the sound of a lullaby or the tinkle of a wind chime. It absorbs all the voices leaving only hers.
Or, I’m focusing way too much that I can hear her voice over the cheers.
Ian tosses the ball to his friend, calls time out and jogs to his sister, holding out his hands. I’m amazed by how he heard her from that distance and I’m—just as everybody else—staring at him in confusion.
He runs his fingers in his sister’s hair, and time stops for me.
She looks like a scene from a movie. I can’t help but notice how her hair catches light with each move, how her delicate fingers put the loose locks behind her ear, revealing a set of piercings from the helix to the lobe. My ears suddenly feel hot. On the top is a small circular emerald piercing, followed by a golden heart, a red star, and then a blue flower with a silver base at the lobe. The same blue flower sits on her other ear. Then she smiles, so radiant as she tips her head back at her brother.
My pulse quickens. God, this is so unlike me! I am sick!
Lilium and Ian might’ve looked alike at some point in their lives, but now they are so different, like two faces of one coin.
Ian gathers his sister’s hair rather neatly, keeping the bangs bouncing about her face, then dutifully ties a ribbon around. It’s the same white ribbon she was wearing the other day, the one I swiftly brushed outta her hair. My fingers still tingle from its softness. Lilium shrugs Ian’s hand and reaches behind for the top of her ponytail, grabbing the ribbon and twisting it around, keeping the Mind your business part swishing down her back.
My heart skips a beat.
Dammit. She got me.
The game becomes fiercer as the number of players drops from sixty to fifteen. Ian is still playing, and the way he keeps covering for Lilium is bugging me. It’s like the time we played tag is happening again. It’s like the three of us are alone and other students are invisible. Any minute now he would come after me with a fist to my face.
Wait . . . that’s it! Ian is focusing on me, and he possibly won’t notice other attacks. Why don’t I take an advantage of this? I look around, and in the blink of an eye make a back pass. Tabitha, my only ally, intercepts the ball, jumps above me, tosses it, and the ball hits Ian in his right arm. Then it bounces and stops by his foot.
“Out!” everybody yells.
Lilium tells Ian she’ll avenge him as he walks to the side, his glare never leaving me.
And she does, because sooner than I expected, it’s she and I who are left standing. We keep tossing the ball around, missing each other on a wide range, and everybody is starting to get bored with us.
I bite my lip. I hafta do something.
“You think you’re gonna win with such a weak toss?” I ask in an attempt to provoke her.
Lilium looks at me, her velvet raspberry lips revealing two rows of ivory teeth. She’s trying to distract me. And she’s succeeding.
“I won’t go easy on you just because you’re a girl,” I add.
“Take me as you wish,” she says with her eyes on mine.
I raise the bait. “How about if you win, I’ll give you one wish.”
She doesn’t even think it. “Fine.”
Lilium is reading my mind. I swear she is. I keep running right to left and the ball keeps coming for me. On the other hand, she is ducking, leaning, and swiveling, missing the ball as if she’s anticipating its trajectory.
The next time she catches the ball, a deep curve on her lips makes the world stop around her. A smile that brings back a million memories in a split second. The precious dimple that crinkles makes my heart skip a beat. She has a smile that makes me feel happy about being alive.
It makes me feel more like a human.
You live for me.
It’s her voice again.
“Shut up now,” I mutter under my breath.
I’m the one who gave you this life, remember?
“Come on, I have a game.” I shake my shoulders and try to focus.
This whole life you’re living, is unforgivable. You dared and made a life without me, without the mother who loved you.
No. Not this voice again. “I. Didn’t.”
Her cold voice leaks between my thoughts. Hotness spreads in my chest.
“I wasn’t . . . trying to . . . live without you.”
I choke on my breath, suddenly feeling my ribs heaving as if bound by ropes, straining to inflate my lungs. My head is a carousel of fears spinning outta control, each one pushing my mind into blackness.
I wanna run. She’s coming for me.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry!”
Sounds that are close melt away, and my mind swirls with memories of dark colors and sounds.
It was the loud bang that left a hole in the wall, the thump of the flying vase, and the crash of the frame coming in contact with the floor.
It was unapologetic. Unforgivable.
It was the hysteric laughter, and the slur of a drunk. These were the sounds made by the woman that called herself my mother. The monster that was okay with laying her hand on the one she swore she loved. The monster that damaged me, and created the sounds forever replaying in the back of my mind.
My chest aches, and my stomach tightens as bile rises to my throat. Outta nowhere, I’m reminded of my mother. I’m reminded that I’m bound to her forever, with a cursed bond that won’t lemme look at anyone else, or live with anyone.
Or love anyone.
“If I went to her again, she would kill me.” She would chain me to that wall again. She will paint the walls of my room black. “The world is pitch black. The world is pitch black.”
You love her, don’t you?
“I dunno . . .” I dunno anything. I swear! I dunno how that feels like! My heart stops. I’m sure of it. I can’t move. My throat feels tight and I’m struggling to breathe.
“If I let her get closer, she might . . . she might . . .”
She’ll take my eyes out.
I dunno how I’m doing this. But I’m running.
Wow! Who would have thought that it’ll come down to Zel and me in the end? Ian kept protecting me until Tabitha knocked him down, and now it’s only the two of us, tossing the ball and missing each other.
“How about if you win, I’ll give you one wish.” Zel dares. He’s so sure he’s going to win. He doesn’t know that whatever game we’re playing, I win.
I always win.
But this is not about winning; this is about the only thing I want to do.
“Fine,” I reply almost immediately. I want to talk to him, and, apparently, I have one chance so I’m going to use whatever I can to win, even if I have to read his mind, which is not exactly cheating, right? I can anticipate the path he will toss the ball upon, and how he’ll move, right?
It’s. Not. Cheating!
And I think . . . I’m pretty good at it!
Zel keeps missing me, and each time I toss, I get closer.
He stops for a moment and looks at me, breathing heavily, his eyes glazed with a brown ring. He rakes a hand through his hair; I could see darker brown roots from all the pulling; and huffs.
I can’t help but smile. Zel’s looks are so intense and everybody is watching us, and he keeps looking at me like he wants to reach out and touch me. I really don’t understand this guy. I blush and try to look away, but his eyes are so mesmerizing I almost don’t notice that it happens.
All of a sudden, his eyes turn into nothing but pupil, blank from any trace of emotions, and his face loses color and contorts into a panicked expression. In a matter of moments, he falls on his knees, clutching his chest, heaving and coughing.
Zel starts whispering in a barely heard voice, and I watch from a few steps away with a constricting chest, and a leaping heart as the sounds of fear morph on his face. The ball that was in my hands drops, and my legs feel like lead. I can’t move. I’m back in that moment, watching him and doing nothing.
The whisper drowns in the commotion around us as everyone stares without daring to approach. My mind is in a haze, and it’s like I’m seeing Zel again in that dark room, cold, alone, and chained to a wall. My heart is already pounding in my ears and the intensity of the voices makes me want to crawl out of my own skin.
I lift my head up, finding my brother’s face, his eyes telling me that it’s fine. I’m fine. No one will come after me. I’m safe.
“I swear I didn’t do anything to him,” I blurt.
Ian’s eyes soften a bit, and he brushes my hair out my face and hugs me to his chest tightly. “Shush . . .” he whispers, “I know. I know.” That’s right. I don’t have to tell him. He always knows. Ian is the psychic one after all. “You’re going to be fine. You have to be fine.” For me. For you. For all of us.
He pulls away and looks in my eyes. “I really hate him so much—”
“Go and find him.”
“Wha-What?” Is it me, or did my brother just ask me to go and find Zel?
He looks away, a slight blush rising to his face. “Go and find him,” he says again.
I look behind him. Zel is already gone. “But why?” I whisper. “I thought you hate him. We promised not to bother him.” I’m being unreasonable. It’s true we promised to leave him alone—
“That is as long as he’s fine. And you always come first, remember?” Ian says.
“That’s the rule, Mika. So do what you want!”
“Look at you.” His mouth curls into a small smile. “You like him.”
Wha-What? “I don’t—”
Ian grabs my shoulders. “Go, Mika! Now!” There’s no time to argue, his eyes say.
I swallow and turn on my heels, then run outside the gym. I don’t like him, do I? I mean of course I don’t dislike him, he’s my childhood friend after all, but no, I don’t like him that way.
I’m running downstairs, when I spot him from a window. “Zel!” I yell.
He glances at me with a fearful look before dashing into a run.
I run out the school double doors. No, I don’t like him. I don’t like him in the way that makes my heart beat or makes my skin tingle, right? He’s just my friend, that one who’s a bit younger than me, and it’s normal to miss him and want to talk to him. I just want to keep him safe. I want to protect him.
I run around the school, looking high and low for him. The paved road to the backyard is littered with golden and red leaves. The flowery aroma fills my lungs as I run into the bed of lilies.
Zel is sitting between the lilies, hunched over himself, his knees close to his chest, shaking violently. The flowers are already yellow-white, life withering out of them. I squeeze at my heart.
My voice comes out more like a desperate shriek, but it doesn’t reach him, and this time, he doesn’t run away. He’s off somewhere in his own darkness, and if I don’t do something, he will dive deeper and deeper.
“Zel!” I will my feet to move towards him, my heart rocketing along so fast I’m almost dizzy. I drop on my knees in front of him and curl my fist around his shirt tightly. I could feel his heart throbbing so frantically that the cry in my throat almost escapes. His face is so ashen I’m scared he might fade away any second.
I’m scared I might lose him.
“Zel, you hear me?” I shake him gently. “It’s okay. It’s fine.” It’s not okay. It’s not fine. But I have to hold back my tears and brace myself. This is nothing compared to what he passed through his entire life. I have to be stronger.
I swallow the lump in my throat and try again, scared that my voice will break any second. “No one is coming after you. You’re okay.” I press my palm to his heart, feeling his pulse running in shockwaves through me.
Only he heaves in response and presses his hands to his ears, as if telling me to shut up. He’s not even crying. He’s not even breathing. He’s only heaving, barely heard painful screams escaping his throat, coming at me as sharp as daggers.
Who knows what’s going on in his head? Who knows what awful picture is replaying in his mind? What shall I do?
Zel, my childhood friend, the boy who’s a bit younger than me, who used to live alone with his mother in a house in the middle of the forest, the one with the small footprints in the mud, the little boy who likes blueberry pies and chocolate milk, the one with the big heart is now but withering before my eyes.
And I want to hold him, to cling to him, to tell him that it’s all fine. I want to hold him close to my heart and never let him go. I want him by my side every day and night until the last breath escapes my lungs, until the last beat of my heart.
That feeling of wanting to do something for someone, to care for them; what was that feeling again?
That’s what like is about, isn’t it?
Ian was right. I like him.
I try to hold him closer, but all of a sudden, Zel wraps his arms around my hips, his head falling into my lap. I glance at him for a second before bending over him instinctively, shielding his body with my own, running my fingers through his hair. Forget about how he hated to be touched, this is what he needs now. I press my cheek to his forehead. Press a kiss to his temple.
And then he breaks.
Shaking violently, shattering in my arms, a million gasping, choking pieces I’m trying so hard to hold together. And then in this moment, I promise myself, that I’ll hold him forever, just like this, until all the pain and suffering is gone, until he’s given a chance to live the kind of life where no one can wound him this deeply ever again. Even if he doesn’t like it. Even if he pushes me away, I promise myself that I’ll push my way through, that I’ll raise my voice as much as it takes to reach him, to pull him up from the dark.
I pass my fingers through his hair. The attacks had receded, and his screams had dropped into soft breathing. I watch him for few minutes, synchronizing my breathing with his.
He grips me tighter. “I just want to be held like this for a bit more.”
I smile. “It’s fine. I’m not going anywhere.”
I’m always here with you.