Just As You Are

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Chapter Twelve

IAN

“So yeah, we have our training camp, and we can’t participate in the school retreat.”

Gilda, a classmate and a member on our team, is sitting face-to-face with Marsha and my sisters, with tons of books and notebooks splayed on the desks between them.

Mika came back? When did that happen? Did she jump in through a window? How much time did I spend with Kiki on the roof?

I glance at the latter as she walks into class and pulls out her notebooks again, my mind flashing with the sensation of her silky hair between my fingers, and her small body against mine. I press my lips together and take a deep breath, this is not the time to let my guard down, especially with Mika sitting right there in front of me.

“Why, God, why?” My sister whines. She tilts her head backward and Marsha straightens it as she braids Mika’s hair. “How come the camp and the retreat overlapped this year of all the years?” she asks.

Gilda pushes her glasses up and checks the calendar. “Because the exams came a bit late this year.”

“That’s unfair,” Mika mumbles, resting her head on the table and looking in my direction.

I quickly hide behind the wall, hoping she didn’t spot me. Regardless of the fact that I’m embarrassed about showing up late because I was with a girl all alone, the reason I can’t face my sister is totally different. With all the things that happened, and all the people who are standing between us, it’s like there’s a gap growing.

“Maybe we can plan something for the winter vacation,” Gilda says.

“If Young Mistress’s average goes up, we’ll discuss this, right, Young Mistress?” Akuni asks.

I don’t hear Mika’s reply.

“Young Mistress? You hear me?”

Why isn’t she saying anything? I press the heel of my hand to my temple; my head hurts a lot these days. Or wait, is that her interfering with my waves?

“Ian Roselie.”

I flinch at Mika’s icy tone.

“I know you’re out there.”

I don’t move. I don’t breathe. My head throbs.

“Don’t make me come over there myself,” she hisses.

I sigh. Does she have to complicate things? “Aw . . .” Another pang of pain. I press both hands to my forehead. What’s wrong with me?

“Ian!”

“Shit! Are you trying to kill me?” I shriek.

My sister appears at the door, her hair lifted in a crown twist braid, the silver lily clearly shining over the pink fabric of her vest, and when her eyes meet mine, the steel grey icy look in her eyes scares me all the more.

She circles my wrist, “Come with me, we have to talk,” and starts walking without giving me a chance to reply.

Still, I argue. “Mika, we’re supposed to be studying. Exams start next week!”

“I know.” She takes the stairs upward, me in tow. “First we have to talk.” We have to talk, she says. Not only we need to, but we have to.

“Can’t we talk at home?” I ask as we start running in the aisle of the third floor.

“No, it might be too late by then,” she replies.

“Where are we going?”

Mika stops for a second and looks back at me, her eyes a glimmering grey-blue, a smile tugging on her lips. “To a place where you’ve never been.” She treads elegantly up the rest of the stairs to the roof, where the door is still open, and walks in. “Come on,” she says when I stop on a step behind her.

“Mika, I don’t want to ruin your excitement, but I’ve been to the roof before.”

“I know, you idiot.” She pulls me up and onto the roof. “We’re not there yet.”

We walk to the other side of the janitor’s room where there is a huge black door that I’ve never seen before. “What’s this?” I ask.

“A door.”

“Mika!”

My sister picks at the lock and opens it—when did she learn to do this?—and I realize the door is connected to a vestibule, which is connected to a vessel, which is connected to a—

“Mika, where are we going again?” I ask.

We’re walking in a forty-feet-from-earth twenty-meter vessel, and the place is dark and dusty, and if it wasn’t for the phone lights, we’d never even see our hands. “I thought you hate dark places.”

“I hate dark, closed places.” She corrects me.

It is closed.

“Be careful, there are stairs here,” then she takes my hand and we walk side by side until we reach another door. “Carry this.” She hands me a handbag and takes a hairpin out of her crown of braids. I didn’t notice she was carrying a bag until she handed it over. Mika crouches by the door and asks me to aim the phone light at the lock so she can open the door.

“What if someone caught us?”

“Stop talking and nagging!” she snaps. “No one comes here.” The door clicks, and Mika stands up. “Ready?” she asks.

I don’t even have time to reply to that because she opens the door, and the moment my eyes capture every little detail, air rushes out of me.

From the earthen hues of the forest to the purity of the sky, the land in between is a three-dimensional wonder for the eyes who are willing to absorb the light. Autumn fades in like a softly sung hymn. The brilliant shafts of sunlight caress the carpet of berry-reds and golds before us, and leaves dance from branches to the ground freely. The breeze is rich with the scent of the earth, bringing us a sense of peace. We must be fifty feet over the ground, because I haven’t seen the sky this close, it’s much closer than the spot on the roof. We are standing in a Victorian-style chamber open to the space around it, with a backless bench and a huge rusty bell hanging from its ceiling.

“This is . . . a bell tower,” I say, releasing the breath I’ve been holding for a while now.

Mika nudges me forward. “Come on, we’ve got business up our sleeves.” She sits on the bench and pats the spot next to her.

“How did you find this place?” I sit down and try to contain my excitement.

She takes the handbag from me and reveals a box and a red Thermos, and puts them between us. “I have my ways,” she replies, then she opens the box and slides it towards me.

“Raisin . . . cookies?” I glance from Mika to the box and then back to her. Ugh . . . the serenity of the view is ruined by the negative charges running between us. “What’s going on, Mika?” I ask.

“You tell me.” The grey color in my sister’s eyes dulls, and all of a sudden, it’s as if she’s looking through me, digging in my mind for a string of a thought to hang onto.

Looking away, I reply automatically, “I’m fine.”

The coolness of her hand rest on my cheek wills me to look at her again. “You’re not fine. Look at you, you’re pale,” Mika whispers, “and it’s all because of me.”

“Mika . . .”

“I overthink, I overexert myself, and you always pay for it.” Her face turns red and her eyes glint with tears. “I don’t want you to get sick again.” Mika swallows and looks up at me. “And this time it’s just the same. Yes, I am overthinking. I’m keeping myself busy to drive my mind away from unwanted thoughts that I’ve kept the lid on for so long. You think I’m not aware? You think I don’t sense that you’re drifting away?”

Few beats of silence hang between us, only filled with the sound of my loudly-beating heart. “You’re always first, Mika,” I whisper.

“I don’t want to be first!” she yells, and wipes her face with her sleeves. My heart pangs. “I want to worry about you.” Her eyes meet mine, a shade of blue surfacing in them. “Talk to me. Object. Yell when you don’t like things. Don’t do things you don’t like! I know you’re worried and . . . and . . .” Mika bites her lips. “I-I don’t know everything.” Then she bursts into tears.

I look over my sister. Bloodshot eyes, tear-stained cheeks, lips pressed together, and a face crumpled with genuine worry. I stood at the roof today, thinking that my sister was being ripped away from me, looking after someone else and forgetting me. I was a bit jealous, and now I sound like a baby for wanting my sister to be with me and only me. It never crossed my mind that she needed me. No, wanted me, by her side. I thought she grew out of it.

“What?” she mutters when I stay silent. “You thought I grew out of it?”

My eyes widen. “Y-You can still—”

“I can read your thoughts,” Mika says pointedly, “just not all!” She sniffs and twines a lock behind her ear. “You can tell me, even if you’re jealous, you can tell me.”

“What?” I smile and reach out, brushing her tears away. My beautiful sister. “Jealous of whom?” I ask, even though I know the answer.

Mika averts her eyes, a slight blush rising on her cheeks. “Zel.”

“God!” I throw my hands in the air. “Why does everyone assume that I’m jealous of this guy?”

Mika bites her lip, and starts counting things on her fingers. “Because you punched him when we were kids. Because you always glared at him behind your books. Because you always ate his share of blueberry pies and raisin cookies before he came over to our house. Because you used to lock him in the attic when we played hide and seek. Because you pulled a tantrum when you sent me after him the other day. Because—”

I stuff her mouth with a cookie to make her shut up. Oh my God. I’ve never felt this humiliated and hideous before! I’ve been a really nasty kid.

“Mmm . . .?”

“Let me tell you two things,” I start, “one, you make the best raisin cookies in the world, and two”—I cup my hands around my mouth—“I’M NOT JEALOUS OF THAT RAT BASTARD!”

Mika bursts into a fit of giggles, spraying me with cookie crumbs. “But—”

“I just want to protect you, Mika.”

“What?” Her cheeks color pink, and her eyes become misty again.

“Whatever action I took, I thought of protecting you in the first place, you’re my sister after all. And Zel is hurt, I was scared he might hurt you to get back on his mother.”

Mika covers her mouth as tears stream down her face.

I gulp. “But then you started thinking and taking actions on your own, and I was dead to know and you said it wouldn’t take long, but I think I can’t wait anymore. Then today, it happened again. You should have seen yourself, standing pale and still. Watching it happen and doing nothing freaked me out. I knew you wanted to help him, and all I did was giving you a little push.”

I admit I always felt a little jealous of anyone who gets close to you, because Mika, you’re not only my sister, you are the anchor I lean on. You’ve been my ally since forever, and it felt like things were slipping away. I’m constantly scared I’ll lose you. It’s as if you’re not my twin anymore.”

It sounds stupid, saying it all out loud, yet I’m relieved. I take her hand in mine and wipe her tears with the other. “I am worried. I wanted you to be happy and safe at the same time. Please tell me you are.”

“And here I thought I’m the only one with a jumble of thoughts.” Mika pulls me into a hug. “I am. I’m safe, because you’re always here for me. And I’m happy to hear from you, my sweet little brother,” she says softly.

I can’t help but smile, because if I don’t, I might cry.

Then she pulls away and rests her forehead to mine, strands of our dark red hair mingling, our grey-blue eyes meeting, just like the autumn we are.

“I will always be your twin sister, Ian. I will always look after you. That is the only thing that’ll never change.”


KIKI

“A-Are you sure you want me to . . . help you?”

Bright blue eyes, short black hair, bold red lipstick. A girl with a slim figure and large golden hoops in her ears is standing in front of me, her eyes as wide as saucers. What was her name again?

“Of course Kiki, I’m asking you,” she says, “if Ian was here, I would’ve asked him to help me out, but he hasn’t been a good boy these days.” The girl pouts and wrings her arms over her chest.

I notice her fingernails are polished a glittering red.

“Maybe I should take him out on a date or something,” she muses, and my chest suddenly tightens. “The boy needs a maiden after all.” Then she licks her lips and flicks her hair.

“RayRay.” Marsha glances up from her calculus book with a confused expression. “You’re babbling.”

The girl I now know as RayRay— according to Marsha’s ridiculous collection of nicknames—whips around. “I know! But I can’t control my love for him.”

My neck prickles.

“That is not love, Rachel.” Akuni sets her book down with a thunk.

That’s it! Rachel! I knew I heard the name somewhere.

“That’s obsession,” Gilda adds.

“Oh, what do you know.” Rachel waves them away. “You’ve never fell in love before.” Then she turns to me with a smile. “So, are you going to tutor me for exams?” she asks sweetly.

I stare at Rachel in thought; she’s beautiful, sweet, and she asked me politely, and regardless of the fact that she’s crazy about Ian, I don’t see why I won’t help her. What does Ian hafta do with this anyway? It’s not like I’m annoyed or anything. I can and I wanna help her.

“Sure,” I reply with a smile.

“Why are you asking Kiki, of all the people?” Gilda asks.

“Because she ranked first among all the juniors,” Rachel says, and my face flares with embarrassment. Now everyone will think I’m a dork.

“Wow . . .” Marsha whispers. Then she jumps outta her seat, “You’re this smart and you’ve never told us?”

I curl a ring of hair around my finger. “Ahh . . . it’s nothing . . .”

“It’s nothing?” Marsha gasps. “You could’ve saved our asses long ago!”

“Language, young lady,” Akuni mumbles in her maid voice.

“Akki, you don’t see, we are friends and we didn’t know she ranks one in our class.”

My heart becomes a little lighter; she said we are friends.

“In all classes.” Akuni corrects. “And don’t call me Akki, it’s idiotic.”

“I mean, what kind of friends are we?” Marsha leaves her desk and pulls me into a sudden hug, and my body stiffens in shock. “On behalf of the stupid students in our class and all our friends, I apologize from you, Kiki.”

“Why are you—?”

She pulls away. “Teach us!”

“Ahh . . .” I let a low laugh. “But a person like me might not be able to—”

“You can, of course you can! You’re the first! Teaching us would be easy. Right, girls?” Marsha asks.

The girls nod in approval.

I stare at my classmates; the ones who helped me and accepted my wrecked and weak self in this short time with their own version of kindness and friendliness. The people I guess I can call my friends. I was going to help one of them anyway, so why not help them all.

I turn my desk around and grab my chair to join them. “I think . . .” I take a breath. “I’m sorry I’m not the cooperative type, and that I don’t speak up a lot.” My belly feels warm and my voice drops to a whisper. “I-I never thanked you for helping me the other day.”

“Kiki . . .” Marsha pats my hand, and Akuni joins in.

“I think I’ll give it a try.” I look at them, and looking at them fills me with courage. “I’ll help you guys.”

The girls smile at each other, and I guarantee the sound of their cheers travels over the whistling wind and each falling leaf, to the edge of the sky.

“AAA! I can’t believe you started without me!”

I’m surrounded by some of my classmates, tutoring them for the upcoming Chemistry exam, when Ian and Mika appear at the door.

“Mikki,” Marsha squeals, “Come and join us.”

“You fat-assed traitors!” she mutters. “You could’ve waited for me.”

“We can’t waste our tutor’s time,” Marsha says right as Akuni says, “Language, Young Mistress.”

“You fat-assed, flat-chested, numb-brained traitors,” Mika responds, then she crosses over to our small circle, “And who’s tutoring you, anyway?” Her eyes fall on me, and they widen to the point that I can see a blue ring around her pupils. We stare at each other for a few seconds then she blinks.

“K-Kiki. Y-Your hair,” Mika stutters.

Ah, she was staring at my hair. “Yes . . .?”

“You curled it and pulled it up,” she says in confusion.

I blush, partly because everybody is staring at us, and partly because I know that Ian is sitting in his chair behind me, staring at us.

Then Mika’s face brightens and breaks into a dimply grin. “You look so cute, it suits you,” she says softly.

Light spreads through me. I pull a loose lock behind my ear and attempt a small smile, otherwise I would be cartwheeling and dancing hula hoops all over the class. “Thank you.”

“Right Ian, doesn’t she look cute?” Mika asks, and the fifteen pairs of eyes surrounding me look at him, including me.

Ian looks unfazed by the fact that everybody is watching us as his eyes roam over my face, and I take the opportunity to study his eyes.

The first couple days, I’d labeled them ‘grey.’ But if I looked at them with the sun shining on them, I’d call them ‘silver.’ Neither word does them justice. They are so solid, so bright, the exact lustrous color of a polished shard of metal. If I look closer, like I am just now, I can see the swirls of glittering onyx black and tinges of blue at the edges. They aren’t monochrome or boring. This is simply a terrible judgment. They’re beautiful.

“Cute.” Ian lets it leave his lips in a very slow whisper, putting the weight of his husky, crunchy voice in each letter, and it’s more than enough to ignite that light in my chest into a wild fire, seeping right into my insanely a drumming heart. My face becomes the exact shade of a ripe tomato, and I can’t seem to find my voice.

“You’re not going to say anything?” Rachel speaks up after the heavy awkward silence. She puts a hand on my shoulder and smiles. “Don’t let it bother you, Ian had never admired any of us girls before, except his sisters.”

But he did admire me. I wanna believe he said it as a whisper so that it’d stay between us. I don’t say anything because I wanna keep the joy of it for myself only. It’s a little selfish wish, but whatever.

“You realize that the entire thing is centering around you again, right Ian?” Rachel mutters.

Ian shrugs.

I find my voice again. “Guys we hafta continue studying,” I say before they start snipping at each other.

“They said you’re tutoring them,” Ian says.

I nod.

“Then how about you come to the board and teach us all?” he suggests, his expression totally different from the one I saw on the roof. Challenging. “It’d be easier for everybody else, right guys?” He turns around to seek their approval, and everybody nods at me.

My throat tightens. “But, what if . . . no, I can’t do it,” I say with a shake of my head.

“What is it that you can’t do?” Mika asks with a smile. “You’ve been helping them here. It’s the same, just up on the board.”

“No, no.” I shake my head, my eyes darting everywhere. I’m okay with teaching my friends here on my desk, but I can’t stand in front of everyone. What if I look weird? What if my skirt is ripped? What if my handwriting looks funny on the board? Or what if I get there and trip or lose my voice? They’ll make fun of me. “A person like me can’t do this.”

“Stop saying this,” Ian says in a surprisingly exasperated tone that makes me flinch. I’ve never heard an edge to his voice before. “Stop saying a person like me,” he mutters. Then he takes a deep breath and looks at me again, this time with a soft glow in his eyes, “You’ll never know until you try.”

He’s using my words on me now. I lick my lips to hide my smile.

“You help her, Ian,” Mika says with a cheesy grin.

I blush.

“What? No. I don’t want to.” Ian rests his head on the table and closes his eyes. “I want to sleep.”

“Come on, you’re her caretaker, right?” Roy adds from the other side. Wait, her what? “Remember, you said you’re going to help her the other day.”

My cheeks flare. I tell them to knock it off.

“I know.” Ian opens one eye and looks and me. “But she’s not a baby, she can do it on her own.”

You’re challenging me? Fine.

I push my chair back with all my might, walk over to the board before my knees turn into jelly, take a chalk, and whip around. All eyes are on me, including Ian’s. He had sat up and opened his book, a pencil waiting over the paper. I narrow my eyes on him; what a wicked boy.

“Teach me, Kiki,” he says with a slight encouraging nod and a hint of a teasing smile that I only can see.

I turn around again, letting the board hide my blush and shushing my heart before I start scribbling, putting another foundation stone into my personality, and winning another war.

God. That was a battle. And if you win a battle, it doesn’t mean you’ve won the war.

That’s how I ended up sitting in the kitchen with my parents peering at me across the table.

Okay, Papa is peering at me; it’s the look of a policeman. Waiting. Investigating. Mama has this goofy smile on her face, and I’m quite sure she spaced out in the middle of my speech, until she surprises me by speaking up first.

“So, you said you applied as a manager for the soccer team,” she starts, “and you’re going to the mountains with the team and Coach for the training camp.”

“That’s right.” Ian filled me in about the camp, and he said that this year’s theme is training in nature. We’re going to cook for ourselves and sleep in a lodge in the mountains for two weeks or so.

“And after you come back, you’re going to stay afternoons for practice,” Mama adds.

I nod.

“So basically, you wanna extend your curfew and sleep outside the house.”

“That’s asking too much.” Papa presses his hand on his stomach as if he’s in pain.

It’s hopeless; they won’t lemme move outta their sight. I’m bound to stay here protected and overlooked by them forever. I’m not saying I hate it. But I don’t like it either.

It’s suffocating.

“I don’t see why not,” Mama says.

“WHAT?” Papa and I yell simultaneously.

“Marie, did you lose your mind?” Papa asks.

Mama smiles. “Matthew, honey, look at her. Our daughter is almost eighteen and she’d never slept outside the house or stayed for afternoon activities at school.”

Wow, my scatterbrained mother is quite impressive.

“All she’s asking for are two little things.”

“But Marie—”

“She never asked us for anything before,” Mama interrupts.

“Ah . . .” Papa massages his temples and smiles. “Our daughter is growing up.”

“I promise you, Papa.” I take his hands. “I’ll be safe. I’ll be with Coach and my friends, and I’ll call you every day. Okay?” I blurt desperately.

A blanket of silence lands on the three of us and my eyes keep darting between my parents.

“Honey.” Mama urges.

“Papa.”

He sighs loudly and finally says it, “Fine.”

“Yay! Thank you thank you thank you!” I practically pounce at him and pull him into a hug.

I’ve never been this happy. A new page of my life is finally starting.

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