Just As You Are

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Chapter Thirteen

ZEL

This is how . . . This is how you melt away the ugly feelings and dark thoughts inside me, bit by bit. How is it that someone like you would be by my side? That you would cry for me? Why do I wish for it? I know I shouldn’t. I know I don’t have any right to . . . I know it’s a mistake to be by your side . . . so why can’t I help wanting to treasure you this time, to never leave you? I can’t help wishing . . .

“Do you know what I’m doing now?”

The sky was as pale and far as my soul to the point that I thought I was dreaming, but the sweet smell of lilies and their fading whiteness that were right before my eyes, and the gentle fingers that threaded in my hair gave it all away. Everything was real. It happened again.

I kept a steady gaze on the lilies, listening to the wind humming between their petals, and tuning to Lilium as she breathed in synchrony with me. She had followed me, found me, and saved me again. She had held me as I screamed like the pathetic self I am and didn’t let go of me. She had chosen to step closer to me, and this was not good. I should’ve hidden in a place where she couldn’t find me, but I didn’t have the energy to think things through.

I was overwhelmed.

“You’re comforting me,” I said. I knew what this feeling was. It’s called relief, and it’s when you’re safe after being in danger. I know that it replaces fear; that’s what Lilium taught me.

She let go of my hair and leaned over me where lots of White Heaven Lilies were growing, her waves tickling my cheeks. Then she plucked some flowers and handed a few to me.

“What?” I turned my gaze upward and met her eyes. Lilium’s hair moved softly in the wind, back and forth, revealing and hiding the grey of her eyes. But they weren’t grey. They were silver. Brilliant and bright, with a shade of blue, just like the sky above us. I kept my heart in check and begged it not to beat; I didn’t wanna lose my grip on it again; and asked, “Why did you pick the lilies?” My voice came out groggy, and I had to clear my throat.

Lilium smiled and began twining the stem of the first lily just below the receptacle of the other. “I’ll try to make a crown,” she said without looking at me.

I turned my gaze back to the lilies. “Are you even allowed to pick them?”

“I planted them, and I’m the one who takes care of them. These are my babies.” Her tone was serious, and I had to stop myself from laughing. But she was right; Lilium did sound like the mother of these lilies. It was scary to see them wilting before their mother’s eyes.

“Give me one more,” she said for the fifth time. Soon, she was done with it, and asked me to sit up.

I didn’t wanna. I was enjoying the breeze and the lilies, and being this close to Lilium felt warm and safe. But I knew I couldn’t keep her at this distance. I didn’t want her to get hurt.

So, I sat up and gave her my best version of I’m-trying-not-to-die look, trying my best not to pay attention to how her eyes twinkled, or how her crimson hair fanned about her freckled face and her dimples shone as she smiled. Lilium reached up and placed the crown on my head, making my heart swell with her beauty.

“How beautiful,” she whispered. She didn’t ask how I felt. She didn’t ask what happened. She just said it.

And I was five again, Lilium’s voice ringing in my ears, her forehead kissing mine.

“Why did you follow me?” I asked, holding her by the wrists.

And she gave me the answer I was scared of the most. “Because I was worried.”

I was both happy and terrified, and that was a feeling I’ve never experienced before. “Don’t expect me to tell you anything,” I said in an attempt to blow her off.

But she smiled again, and this time kissed my forehead. “I’ll wait for you, as long as it takes,” she murmured.

“Mom!”

I shut the door, take off my shoes and drop my bag, then take the stairs two at a time to the second floor.

“Mom, where are you? Mom?” I pause and listen; the house is strangely quiet it is almost creepy. “Mom? Jocelyn?”

I try the laundry room and the library. Not there. I poke my head into the study. “Dad?” No body.

“God. Where did everyone go?” A chill runs up my spine, and I rub my arms.

“Who’s there? Who’s in the house?”

Oh, there is someone home.

“Get outta my house or I’ll call the police!” The voice is coming from upstairs, and it’s quite scared, as if coming from a sore throat.

I go upstairs and peer into the floor. It’s my first time here and the darkness of the corridor makes it hard to move forward.

“I know you are out there!” the voice yells. “If you come closer, I swear I’ll call the police! I’m holding the phone! I’m dialing!”

I smile, and walk over to the door from where the voice is coming.

“I know you are outside my door!” the voice says.

I trace my finger over the carving on it. Annabelle, it reads—Jocelyn’s and Daniel’s legitimate child. I’ve never been to this room, and I’ve never seen Annabelle before. It’s odd to come here while no one else is at home. It’s like I’m violating a rule or something.

“Just go away!” she yells.

“Annabelle,” I mumble.

“Z-Zel!”

“Yes . . . that’s me.” A pause. “Wait, how do you it’s me?”

“I-I know your voice,” she murmurs, “I thought it was a thief or something.” Then I hear a page being flipped. “You scared me.”

I put my hand on the door. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Another page is flipped. And another. And another.

“You’re gonna leave me out here?” I ask after eight pages.

“Why do you want to come in? No one’s been to my room before,” Annabelle argues.

I say the first thing that comes to my mind. “I need someone to talk to. If I don’t say what’s on my mind, my brain might explode.”

“That’s rather a childish expression,” she says in a glee tone. And she’s right; I’m a person who’s still learning words to convey my emotions.

“So?”

“Come in.”

I open the door very slowly, completely aware that I dunno the person behind it or how the room looks like because I’ve never been here before and I dunno Annabelle. Neither do I know of the problem that’s keeping her away from us. We are not banned from visiting her, but Mom says that Annabelle doesn’t like people in her room, so we’ve never given it a try.

The door opens to a room twice the size of mine, of black-blue walls with numerous stars on every inch of it and large paper lanterns descending from the roof, and a floor-to-ceiling window that overlooks the green dense of the forest, shadowed by lace-fringed lavender-purple curtains. There’s a vanity mirror and a large closet against one wall, and three bookcases that are crowded with books against another. Actually, there are books everywhere: in the cases, on and under a desk, on the floor, crammed together in insanely increasing piles to the point that I don’t place Annabelle until I look around again.

Against the wall facing the door is a queen bed blanketed with a damson quilt and lots of pillows, and there’s a girl coated in it, with an opened book in her lap.

I’m looking at a younger version of Mom. Gigantic curly black hair, porcelain skin, plump face, blood-red lips, and when her eyes meet mine, I see they’re glass green-blue, twinkling as if shone with morning light. Annabelle is lying in her bed, pillows stacked behind her head as she reads from Cloud Atlas.

“Wow,” I breathe. “You look exactly like Mom.”

She doesn’t smile, just a little blush colors her cheeks. “Thank you, and welcome to my haven. Make yourself comfortable.”

Why she calls it haven is something I don’t get; the place is suffocating. Maybe because she’s never been outside of this room and she feels safe here.

“Where?” I ask.

Annabelle points to a couple beanbags behind piles of books, and I carefully take one out and place it beside her bed. Then I sit down, trying to keep a casual smile on my face. I’m just a hideous jumble of thoughts, and the events turned out quite surprising.

“So . . . um . . .” I clear my throat. “Hi, I’m Zel,” I say dubiously.

Annabelle bites her bottom lip and looks away, closes Cloud Atlas, then looks at me with an arranged expression. “I know, no need for introductions,” she says, her voice neutral, “I know everyone here.”

“Do you happen to know everything?” I ask with a gesture of my hand.

She nods. “Ask me anything.”

I do without hesitation. “Where’s everybody?”

“Dad’s at work. Mom took Nathan to a dentist. Lucifer and Windy are grocery shopping. The rest of the kids are playing tag with the maids around the garden.”

“Wow. That was . . . detailed.”

“So, care to elaborate?” Annabelle opens another book and sifts through the pages.

“Huh?”

“You said you have something to say or your brain might explode,” she says impatiently.

“Yeah well . . .” I clasp my hands together; it feels like I’m intruding. “I think I’m sick.”

“And do I look like a doctor?” she mutters.

“No! I’m just—” I sigh and look her in the eye. What am I afraid of? I’m the oldest in this house, and she’s not supposed to drag me around like this even if I’m originally an outsider. “Do you want to listen or just snap at me?” I mutter.

She presses her lips together, her face coloring. “I’ll listen. Go ahead.”

“Good, okay . . .” I inhale a breath. “I dunno what’s happening to me exactly, but I’m quite sure it’s not good,” I start.

“How do you feel?” Annabelle reaches behind the pillows and fishes out a brown notepad, opens it, then takes the pencil left inside and points it on the paper. She seems completely ready to listen and scribble down notes, and her position reminds me of Mom during my therapeutic sessions.

I let myself relax a bit. “Right now, I am a mixture of very happy and very sad. And I’m trying to figure it all out, all these feelings and emotions and words and thoughts, and what they all mean. Everything I feel is a contradiction of itself, and I do not understand any of it.”

Annabelle curls a lock around the pencil then lets it bounce about her face. “I don’t understand. Can you be more specific?”

I take a while to think. “I dunno how to describe it, but for starters, I think my heart is acting up. It’s beating really fast these days.” I glance at her. “Is this helpful?”

“Do you feel queasy? Headache? Anything remarkable?” she asks, and I notice she’s licking her lips as she writes.

“Hmm . . . When it happens, my mind kinda disconnects, and my chest feels kinda warm.”

“Does it happen at a certain time of the day? Or all the time?”

I blink.

“What?” she asks.

“Nothing. I was thinking that you sound like Mom,” I say with a smile.

This time, Annabelle smiles back. “No offense, but I’m my mother’s daughter.”

“You’re right. No offense taken.”

“Now back to you.” She points the end of her pen at me.

I nod. “Right. I feel like that when . . .” Whenever my eyes catch a ray of red. Whenever I see her smiling, or fixing her hair, or even breathing. My heart goes wild when those silver orbs meet my golds, or whenever I hear her giggle. The moment I’m alone, my brain crowds with thoughts all about her. I want her. I have a crazy urge to touch her, to be with her each second. And it’s killing me that I can’t.

“When I see or think that I see Lilium. Or even think of her,” I reply. My face flushes. “I-I dunno what this feeling is, but it’s definitely not good, because I forget to breathe each time I see her,” I add desperately.

Annabelle chews at the end of her pen. “And Lilium is . . . ?”

“My childhood friend,” I reply immediately.

“Hah. I see.” She nods slowly then writes something in her pad.

“So, is it something serious, doctor? Am I gonna die?”

A stream of giggles escapes her throat, and her entire demeanor changes. “No, you idiot.”

My eyes widen; Annabelle just switched from street-formal to sisterly-informal.

“You’re not going to die. You’re just falling in love with this friend of yours.” She glances at me, and her features instantly harden. “Zel, you okay?”

I must look scared because Annabelle had leaned closer, trying to inspect my face.

“This is much worse.” I stand up abruptly.

“Zel, what happened?” Her worried eyes bore into mine.

I put on a fake smile and help her lean backward against the pillows. “I’m fine. I-I’ll be fine.”

And before she reaches out for me or says another word, I’m outta the room, the door closed behind me. Once out, I instantly sense something is off. The stairwell looks darker than it was—even though the sun is still out—and the air feels thick. I step into my room and close the door, and a chill runs up my spine. I’m not alone. I can sense her.

She’s here.

Spilling the contents of my bag on the carpet, I take a textbook and a pen and try to indulge myself in studying.

“I will not love her,” I say to no one in particular. “I can’t love her, Mama.”

Love is not something good; it’s the thing that brought misery to my life. To me, Love is zero. Whatever you multiply it with, it’ll still be a zero. How can I be fine about being in love with her when the only person who showed me love was my mother? How can I love her when the love I knew is so close to death?

If there’s something that scares me more than death, it’s that ugly thing they call love.

“Hi, boy.”

I opened my eyes. “Mama.”

Dull brown eyes, pale face, thin body, but at least she was smiling. I swallowed the lump in my throat and smiled; she might not punish me today. I must not anger her. I must keep my heart and breathing in check. I couldn’t fret because Mama smelled the fear.

“So, what was my young boy to today?” She poured herself a glass of bourbon and added two ice cubes from the freezer on the other side of the room, then sat on a chair by the table, studying me with an expression that I’ve never seen before. Or maybe I’ve never saw it because Mama would almost always come back when it was dark.

I shrugged. I can’t tell her that I went out today, and played with Lilium and Ian. I didn’t know what to say, or use the words to convey myself. So, I just pointed to the book by the foot of the table—The Gingerbread Man—the one she brought me the other day.

“Do you want a new one?” she asked.

I shook my head no.

“Did you finish reading it?”

I nodded, even though I only used it as a picture-book.

Mama downed her drink and smashed it all of a sudden, and shards of glass cut my feet and arms. Then she peered at me behind her long bangs, making my heart pounce and my chest tight. Mama took off her red vest and stood off the chair then crawled slowly on the floor all the way to me. I managed to keep by breathing even as she took my hand and lifted it to her mouth. But when she licked my palm, and tightened her grip around my wrist, I knew I was done for.

“You’re lying to me,” she hissed.

My eyes widened; a small mistake that went away with my life.

“You smell of berries. You ate a pie. You weren’t alone.” She stated everything as if she was there with me, watching every move.

My throat went dry, and I think I had stopped breathing. I didn’t know what scared me more: her freaking accuracy or the thought of what she would do to me.

“Do you know the punishment of lying to me?” she yelled.

I plugged my ears with both hands, feeling each blow reverberating in my bones. And the more I screamed, the stronger her hand was. Then I felt it. The hot red liquid slid down my fingers as she drew a shard across each one of them, very slowly to the point that if I still had a voice, I’d used it all in an eternal scream.

“Zel! Zel! Honey, do you hear me? Please let go of it.”

Pain rushes up my arm, and my hand is heavy and numb. It’s dark here. I can’t see a thing. The only proof that I’m alive is a distant voice calling my name.

“Zel, give it to me. You’ll hurt yourself. Please, son.”

It’s Dad. His voice is calm without a hint of anxiety—the voice of a psychologist.

What am I holding to give him? I’m death-still and I can’t I move any part of my body, let alone my arm. My vision blurs and crowds with colorful dots.

“Zel, gimme the shard. Don’t hurt yourself anymore honey.” It’s Mom.

Oh . . . so it’s a shard. I’ve finally done it. I’ve finally made a scene and hurt myself. What’s next? What shall I do, Mama? Shall I end this horrible life you’ve been willing to take? Shall I give it a go in a place where no one can find me?

Light spreads, my vision becomes clear with each passing second, and my ears ring with insanely-fast heartbeats and the sound of my breath.

Finally, I see it.

The scarlet and sticky liquid slips between my fingers and drips on my wooden floor, and my hand balls on impact as pain rushes along my arm.

“Jocey quick, get some pain killers and a first aid kit!” Dad yells.

He takes a blooded shard of glass from my other hand, wraps my arm around his shoulder, and helps me up to bed. “Tell me son, what happened?” he asks.

I register the question, and my mind understands it well, but I’m still in a haze as if the synapses between my thoughts and the speaking center are turned off. My head and tongue are heavy, and all I wanna do is lie down.

“What? What is it, son?” My hand shakes as I gesture, but Dad gets it and helps me lie down.

“Oh honey, just what happened to you?” Mom comes into the room with the first aid kit and sits on the edge of the bed, taking my hand in hers. I wince.

“I think it’s good if he lies down for a while,” Dad says.

Mom tells Dad that she’ll take it from here as she inspects the injury, then she asks, “Do you wanna talk about it?”

I let my good arm fall against my eyes as she wipes the blood off my palm and fingers, and wraps bandages around it carefully; while I contemplate telling her about it. I find myself lost and engrossed in a deep sensation of agony.

“I-I’m always hurting others. W-Why didn’t she just kill me?” I mutter under my breath.

“Zel . . .”

“She sh-should’ve killed me . . . It would have . . . been b-better . . . So why am I still alive?” I inhale a staggered breath. I can’t let myself cry again today, it’s so pathetic.

“Why are you saying that, honey?” Mom rests her hand on mine and squeezes, then hands me a couple pills, and I take them. “Don’t say that, you’re important to me.”

“H-How is it that I’m important to you? How is it that my existence is worthy when sh-she took everything from me, and trampled over it?” Mama loved me, and . . . she made me like this. Hurt. Pathetic. Weak. Coward. She made me as fragile as glass. Breakable and uncontrollable. What does she want from me? Just tell her to leave me alone!

“Even so, you’re alive because you haven’t given up hope yet. It’s because you know that not every soul in this world has rejected you,” Mom says softly.

“I don’t care. I-I don’t care about that. I don’t have hope.”

“You do.”

“I don’t!” I don’t.

“Even so, even if you don’t have a glimmer of hope now, it will surely come again.” Mom pulls the blanket over me and dims the lights. “However much you resist or trample it, however many times you’re thrown into despair, hope will come again just as many times.” She squeezes my hand and whispers, “Repeatedly, again and again. Someone will take your hand. Someone will definitely love you.”

“Love me . . . is it how Mama did?”

“Sorry, honey. But that wasn’t love,” she mumbles.

“Then . . . what on earth . . . is love?” I ask, my mind in a haze.

“That is for you to figure out.” I can hear the smile in her voice. “So, are you in love?”

I let my eyes fall closed and relax my body into the mattress. “If love makes your heart beat like this . . . then . . . I think . . .”

I’m in love.

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