Just As You Are

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Chapter Eleven

IAN

“It’s a house. Let’s go back.”

I grabbed her wrist and tried pulling her back, but my sister pulled at my hair and pushed me away. “Come on, Mika.” I struggled. If something happened to her, Sadie would be very mad.

“You can go back, scaredy-cat.” She shrugged me off and continued walking. “I’m going to see the house.” She lifted her oversized hat over her redhead, and cut through the long grass, and I dutifully followed her, until the large white house with the blue roof appeared into sight.

The house looked old and weather-worn, and the bushes around it were bare and the grass was unkempt. Some broken pots that once carried flowers sat on the front porch and close to its red door was a bench. Its wood was splintered and broken. The entire house gave dread vibes.

I was about to tell my sister we had to leave when I spotted him. A boy our age, sitting on the bench, his knees close to his chest, his head resting to the side. I thought he was napping out there in the afternoon sun until I caught a glimpse of skin under his shirt. It was purple and bruised, and it sent shivers up my spine that made me step backward without realizing.

My stomach sank; whoever was living in this house, they weren’t doing any good to the boy. I shook out of my thoughts and looked for Mika, determined to take her home even if she attempted to kill me, but she was already walking closer towards him, and the look in her eyes was a mixture of kindness and sadness that the pastel blue in them softened and surfaced for the first time ever.

It was like watching magic unravel itself.

As if she knew the boy was in trouble, and that someone was hurting him, she rested her forehead to his and whispered, “How beautiful.”

I hated him immediately. It was as if my twin sister, the anchor I lean on, had been taken away.

“Ian.”

As if something had been ripped away from me.

“Ian.”

At that moment, I knew I lost her.

“IAN!”

“What?” I groan. “What do you want?”

“Oh, excuse me, were you trying to sleep?” It’s Marsha. God! Who else would it be?

“Do you think I would talk to you if I was trying to sleep?” I mumble. “Just because I’m hunched over my desk with a book in my face doesn’t mean I’m trying to sleep.” My voice takes an unintentional edge.

“Take it easy, dude. She meant were you asleep?” Roy interjects. “And who knows, you might talk in your sleep.”

“I don’t,” I mutter.

“So, you don’t talk in your sleep.”

At this, I lift my Spanish textbook off my face to find Kiki smiling at me. It’s the first time I’ve seen her smile like this, and it’s making her even cuter; it brings out the gold in her eyes. Her cheeks color pink as I stare, and she looks back at her notebook. Ever since we came back from P.E—where we couldn’t have another game due to the commotion that happened—she’s been self-studying non-stop.

I glance at Akuni. Her hair is loose, straight at the roots and curled at the ends, and she’s reading from my Inkspell copy. Again.

“I . . . don’t talk in my sleep, right Akuni?” I ask, just to make sure.

She closes the book and looks at me with her cat eyes. “I assure you, you don’t talk in your sleep, Young Master.”

“Thanks God.” I exhale. “Hey, when did you curl your hair?”

“Earlier.” Shaking her hair left to right she asks, “How do I look?”

“It suits you,” I answer with a smile, “you look pretty.”

Akuni’s cheeks color. “Marsha did it for me.” She points at Marsha, who is trying to iron her own hair with a flat iron in front of a compact mirror. Not in a million years.

“Do you want me to curl yours?” Marsha asks, pointing at the curling iron.

I let the textbook fall over my eyes, leaving a small space to breathe. “You don’t even dare to.”

“Uhh . . . you’re right, I don’t.” She laughs. And then, “I was thinking, why did Mikki go after that guy from class seven?”

I sent her after that guy from class seven, and I swear it’s killing me from the moment she left. I have a bad feeling about this. “Because she thought she did something to his brain. You know, her wave system and everything.” I lie.

When I told her to go after him, I didn’t do that out of pity, neither because I gave up on protecting my sister. I did send her because I was watching it happening, and I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t know what was going on anymore.

I can’t forget the look in Zel’s eyes, the way they reflected the pure terror he lived through. It flashes on my eyelids whenever they fall closed, as if engraved there. It was the same look he had back then, whenever he had to leave and go back home. Just horror. There was a distance in his eyes, and I stood watching him as he paled and fell on his knees, groans of pain escaping his throat.

Heaviness settled itself in my chest, my stomach churned, and bile rose up my throat. I didn’t doubt for a second that my sister had anything to do with it, and I couldn’t leave, because at that same moment, she was eight years old all over again, hollow and helpless. She wanted to help him, and she needed a little push.

All I did was give her that push, and now I’m lamenting about it.

“Waah! Kiki, your hair is so soft!” Marsha muses in her sugary voice.

“Not at all,” Kiki whispers.

“Oh, don’t be so modest about it. It is really fluffy.”

God! Marsha doesn’t know when to shut up. Now I want to touch it.

“See, Akuni also says it’s soft,” she adds.

“Hehe, thank you.” Kiki’s tone is surely laced with a smile.

“Here Ian, you touch it too.”

Before I get the time to remove my book away or open my mouth to object, Marsha had already grabbed my hand and put it on what is for sure Kiki’s hair. My eyes open wide, my breath catches, and I spring up in my seat, making all the books clatter off the table and fall on my feet.

Silence grows thick as Kiki and I stare at one another.

Then Kiki’s face glows red, her eyes flecked with every shade of green, and glossed over so they’re sparkling like thousands of little diamonds.

I jerk my hand away and clear my throat, hoping my face isn’t as hot as my neck is. Then I stand up, “Excuse me, I’m going for a walk.” I leave the class, grab a bottle of lemon soda, and head to the rooftop.

Ah . . . Much better.

This is my favorite place in the world. Up here, I can see the entire city and name all the buildings and malls. It’s not something I brag about, but seeing cars and people and stores this small gives me a sense of peace. It’s as if whatever problems I have seem so tiny compared to this huge world. I always come here alone when there’s something on my mind.

I take a deep breath and relish the lily-scented air coming from the school garden, and then I see it.

I could spot her redhead from a spaceship; Mika is right there between the lilies, and Zel is resting his head in her lap.

“That bastard!” I put both feet on the bottom railing and grip my hands on the upper one, hoisting myself up to get a better view.

“Oh my God! Where are you going?” someone yells behind me and grabs the back of my shirt, trying to pull me back.

I turn around. It’s a girl with curly brown hair, her bangs are straight, falling into her eyes and brushing her lashes. My ears prickle.

“Kiki!” God, she’s so beautiful! More importantly, what is she doing up here?

“Get down, Ian. Please don’t throw yourself off the roof!” Her eyes are closed as she tugs on my shirt desperately.

Laughing aloud, I step down. “You little idiot, why would I?”

Kiki opens her eyes and releases my shirt, and the constant blush on her cheeks reddens. She looks down and whispers, “I thought you were mad.”

I rub the back of my neck. “In fact, I am mad.”

Her eyes widen.

“Hey, not to the point of throwing myself off the roof. Want to join me here?” I ask as I face the railing.

“I-I’m too short, I can’t reach.”

I press my lips to prevent myself from smiling then look around for something she can stand on. In the back corner of the roof, behind the janitor’s room, are a couple wooden boxes. Making sure they’re both empty, I bring them by, put them above each other, and extend my hand out to Kiki. “May I?”

She hovers for few seconds before taking my hand, and I help her stand up on the boxes. Now our eyes are leveled, and Kiki leans on the railing with a smile, enjoying the wind.

“You curled your hair.” I can’t help but notice. She keeps looking ahead and nods. “It’s beautiful.”

At this, she meets my eyes for a moment and blushes wildly. This girl is all about blushing.

“Ian.”

“Yeah?”

“Your hand.”

“What’s wrong with my . . .” Oh. “I might have . . . reached out . . .” Without realizing it, I reached out and twisted a curl of her hair around my finger. Why am I touching her like that? I can’t seem to control my hand! I let go and clear my throat. “I’m sorry. About earlier too.”

“I’m sorry too,” she whispers.

“Don’t apologize.” I clear my throat again. It’s getting awkward. Think Ian, think. “Ahh … how did you find me?” How did you find me? As if I’m saying the girl was looking for me. I push my hair back.

“You left your signature mark by the door of the roof.” Her voice is still a whisper.

“My signature mark?”

Kiki reveals a bottle of lemon soda and hands it to me.

“And I thought I didn’t leave a trail,” I say as I take it from her.

“So whatcha doin’ here?” she asks.

Watching my twin sister and my arch nemesis being lovey-dovey in the middle of a lily bed. “I like it here,” I reply, “it calms me.”

“I like it here too.” Her voice sounds calm and warm, as if coming deep from her heart, and I glance at her. Kiki’s hair is blowing against the wind, the sun kissing her face. She twines a lock behind her ear, and my pulse quickens dangerously. “It’s closer to the sky. It makes me feel more free, you know?”

I nod.

“It makes me feel emptier. Like I’m nothing.” She closes her eyes and leans backward, tilting her head up to the sky, her hair brushing her neck. “When I look at the sky, I’m light. Like I’m the air itself.”

I tilt my head and look up. “I never thought of it that way.”

Kiki leans forward and rests her arms on the railing.

“You like the sky,” I mumble, and she nods with a smile.

“Hey, that’s Mika.” She points at the garden then cups her face in her hand, her entire demeanor changing. “She’s making out with her boyfriend.”

“What?” I’m about to fall off the railing as I look at my sister. Zel and Mika are still sitting between the lilies, in the same position. They don’t seem like talking or doing anything in particular—they are NOT making out—just holding each other, yet I have a wild urge to go there and pull them apart. “Kiki!” I glare.

She cups her mouth to hide her smile, her face can’t be any redder.

“I can’t believe you did that!”

Kiki giggles, and my pulse quickens again. “Oh my God! You’re jealous!”

“I’m not!”

“You are!” she insists, the small giggle morphing into a stream.

“I’m not!” I say with a laugh. “It seems you’re getting used to talking to the people around you,” I add when the laughter seizes.

“Not at all.”

“But you’re talking to me like any normal person does.”

“True.” She shifts her gaze to me for a brief moment, then looks back down at the garden. “That’s . . . because you’re easy to talk to,” she whispers.

I smile and look away. She’s changing. Little by little. But she’s changing.

“So, you’re not jealous of him?”

That again. “I’m not. I’m just worried about her.”

“But he’s her boyfriend,” Kiki says.

“God forbid! He’s not her boyfriend.”

“Hmm . . . she seems fine. And, well you’ve seen Zel; he doesn’t look like he’s going to hurt her.”

“True. That’s how things look from the outside.” From the inside, he might be a freaking monster.

“So, you’re scared he might hurt her?” Kiki asks.

I nod.

“Why?”

“Because . . .” I don’t know if I have the right to talk this business with Kiki. At the same time, I’m worried about my sister who won’t talk or listen to me. And Kiki . . . well, she’s the only person who would listen to me right now, so I don’t see why I can’t talk about this with her.

“Because . . .?”

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“He’s broken.”


KIKI

My hair cascades in the late October breeze, and I weave it to one side, ignoring the fact that Ian’s eyes are on me all the time. We’re standing by the railing on the rooftop of our school, Eustitia unfolding before our eyes, the lemon bottle resting on the railing between us, and the silence falling deeply. It’s been like that for a while now. Me and Ian. Just the two of us. And the sun. And the wind. And his shaggy hair blowing in the wind, and turning coppery in the sun. And me mentally rambling about how beautiful he is.

“God . . .” I breathe.

“What?” he asks with a sideway glance. “You okay?”

“Y-Yeah. Um . . . Listen.” I look at him. “Just double checking, is Zel broken financially or . . . mentally?” What a dumb question to ask, of course he’s mentally broken. Who’s going to hurt someone this young for a financial crisis?

Ian looks at me like I’m dumb. “Mentally, more like emotionally,” he mumbles.

“Thought so,” I murmur. “So, he lost someone, or . . .”

“Someone severely wounded him,” he says gravely. His lips part as if to say something, then he stops, and then his jaw tightens, so I decide to start in his stead because it’s kinda bothering me.

“So, you think he’ll hurt your sister, because he’s . . . mentally or emotionally unstable?”

Ian nods, and my stomach turns. Oh wow, what a horrible way of thinking. Taking a deep breath, I blurt it out. “Well, I’m emotionally unstable.”

Ian’s eyes snap to mine, wide and shocked.

“Do you think I might hurt someone because of this?” I add.

He regards me with a look, the sun making the silver in his eyes stand out, then he shakes his hair and exhales.

I gape at him, anger beginning to run through my veins. I rarely get mad, and it hadn’t happened in a long time.

But then he says, “Kiki, this and that are two different issues.”

I take a step closer. “How are they different? You’re assuming that he might hurt someone just because someone hurt him?” I snap.

“Whoa! Easy.” A lopsided grin grows on his face. “That’s new, you’ve never snapped before.”

I wring my arms and scowl at him. “You hafta know this: Not every hurt person will certainly hurt someone.”

“No! Wait, how am I supposed to say this?” he mumbles under his breath. Then he looks up at me, “Listen, I have to say it clearly, so don’t get mad, okay?”

I regard him with a glare and nod.

“Good. God, this is harder than I thought it would be.” He hesitates for a second. “Okay, Kiki, what you were passing through is . . . called—”

“Verbal abuse and violence at school,” I complete for him. Ian’s face turns deep red, just the color of his hair, and for a moment I feel stronger than him. “And just so you know, that wasn’t all.”

Verbal abuse wasn’t all what I experienced. There were physical abuse incidents too. Why does he think they followed me with scissors that day? I touch my hair subconsciously; I don’t remember how I managed to grow it this long again.

Because I was easy to tease, girls used to follow me around, trip me while I’m walking, eat my lunch in the cafeteria or steal it when I buy some, and even lock me in a bathroom stall during classes. It annoyed them that I wouldn’t react, so they would just do it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to react; it was just that I was sure that whatever I would do would never set me free. A group of them once forced me to stay after school and scalded my arms with matchsticks. Things were painful, and I was a coward.

I still can’t believe I survived.

“Just because I’m hurt . . . doesn’t mean I have a tendency to hurt people!” I yell. My stomach roils, and my heart is beating in my throat. I push the memories away and zero my focus on the present moment. “I don’t want to hurt them . . . because . . . because . . .” Then I realize I’m crying, and that Ian’s eyes are still locked on mine, his hand balled into a fist in front of him, waiting for me to finish my sentence.

“Because . . .?” he asks impatiently.

“Because I don’t want them to live the same experience like mine!” I blurt, tears streaming down my face. I don’t care what he thinks. You can’t blame a mentally or physically abused for their actions. You can’t say that because they’re abused, they are a potential danger to humanity. They’re also humans. They deserve to be thought off and helped. They deserve to be looked out for. Not stared at with disgust and hate.

That’s it, I’m fed up!

I’m about to step off the boxes and leave, when Ian grabs my arm and pulls me towards him. To my surprise, my breath catches and I freeze. He wraps his arms around me; now that I’m standing on the boxes, we are the same height; and his head rests in the crook of my neck.

So close! My face flares, and I’m sure any second now my heart will stop dead.

“I was waiting to hear this,” he whispers, “because you’re kind, that’s why you won’t hurt anyone.”

“Ian . . .”

“I’m sorry if I reminded you of bad memories.” He pulls away and looks at me, a blue color flickering in his eyes, then he brushes my tears gently. “I’m sorry I made you cry.”

I forget that I’m blushing and that my heart is thudding, and twine a lock behind my ear then frown. “We’re not finished.” I’m still annoyed about him.

He smiles. “I didn’t say we are.”

“So, are you saying Zel is not kind?”

His brows furrow in thought. “I . . . don’t know.”

I roll my eyes.

“But I know this.” He leans over the railing, his expression tight. “Zel was not raised by a loving parent.”

I swallow.

“Imagine this. You’re raised by a parent who doesn’t love you, or—excuse my choice of words—doesn’t give a crap about you. No, you are not raised by them; you are living with them because you have nowhere else to be. It’s just . . . harsh.” He stops for a second and draws a shaky breath. “You wake up every morning wishing that someone would come to save you. You live through each minute of the day with a monster that toys with you.”

I squeeze at my heart space.

“You don’t know how you fall asleep and each night you pray for your own death.”

A heavy silence settles, leaving the words hanging between us.

“I don’t know what to say,” I whisper. Maybe I should thank God for my caring and loving parents, even if they care a bit too much.

“That’s the kind of person Zel was living with. I’m just scared he might hurt Mika to get back on his parent,” Ian mumbles.

“Do you hate him?” I ask cautiously.

“I hate him.”

Oh God.

“Not because of what he passed through, but because he’s taking away my sister.” He looks at me. “What?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re smiling,” he says pointedly.

“You’re jealous of him.”

“Ahh! That again.” Ian opens the soda bottle and takes a swig. “I’m not jealous. I just feel like . . .”—his hand settles over his chest and his voice drops to a whisper—“. . . like something is ripped away from me.”

“Oh . . .”

“I mean, in all my life, Mika was my only person. She was my sister, my friend, and at some point, she was a little bit of a mother to me. Sadie—our mother—is always busy working to bring money back home, so whenever I wanted to talk or vent, it was always Mika. She was always there. She’s my anchor.”

Instinctively, I reach out and rub his back. “I might not know anything about siblings because I’m an only child, but I see how you guys care for each other. How you always protect each other and have the backs of one another.” I look down at the garden, where Zel and Mika are making lily crowns together. “I don’t think you’re gonna lose her or anything. Mika is a strong girl, and if she happens to fail herself, you’re gonna be there for her, right?”

He nods.

“I believe that every human needs to find their person. Think of it this way, maybe it’s time for you to find your person too.”

“But Kiki—”

“You’re going to say that Mika is your person. Mika is your sister, Ian. And I assure you that will never change.”

His eyes widen, and the pale blue color shimmers in them.

“Your person is waiting for you somewhere.” I can’t believe I’m saying all this. “They’re waiting for you to lift them, and they’re going to lift you too. They’re going to love you in a way your sister can’t do. Just like them.” I point at them. “Zel might be broken, but he’s leaning on her. Mika is his person.”

I glance back at Ian. He’s staring at me, slightly agape.

“What?” Blush sears through my cheeks.

“Wow . . . this is the most you’ve talked ever.”

Suddenly, my face and neck burn and my heart is drumming crazy beats in my ears. I got carried away! I can’t believe I wasted his time with my nonsense! Of course he’d rather check up on his sister than listening to me rambling. I look down, my shoes becoming an object of interest. “I’m sorry,” I whisper.

“Don’t apologize,” he says, his tone serious. “And why are you looking down, I’m right here!” Ian grabs my face with both hands and tilts my head upward, forcing me to meet his eyes. My heart rocket-speeds at his closeness and I’m getting dizzy.

“Am thury,” I mumble.

He releases me. “God, how am I supposed to make you talk like that again?”

I smile. It’s just that I’m getting used to you now. That’s all.

“So are you gonna ask Mika all about what happened when she comes back?” I ask while we’re walking back to class.

“Of course I will,” he says almost immediately, “because she has lots on her mind: Me, that rat bastard, the soccer team, her own issues. I should take something off her shoulders.”

"I should take something off her shoulders,” I tell him, surprising both of us.

“And . . . how are you going to do that?”

Mmm . . . “Maybe I can apply as a team manager.”

Ian smiles. “Wow. Really? Actually, that would be great! Mika will be so happy!”

I smile back. Hey wait, what about my curfew? Hmph, maybe it’s the time to extend it. I’m not a seventh grader anymore.

“But, you sure you’re going to be fine?” he asks.

“You’ll never know until you try,” I say as I walk past him. “And you’ll be there for me anyway,” I whisper to myself.

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