Just As You Are

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Chapter Fourteen

MIKA

“Woohoo! Here we come, freedom!”

I pump both fists in the air then immediately rest my head on the table. We had finally finished our midterm exams, and students from all junior classes are already packing and leaving. Sincerely, I would be cartwheeling if I hadn’t been this exhausted.

“Ugh . . . I’d kill for a sleep right now.”

“You’re loud,” Ian mumbles lazily from the desk in front. He’s also lying on his desk, his eyes trained on Kiki as she organizes her books and packs up her bag.

Charges fizzle in my mind, and I try to ignore them, but they’re getting wilder than normal, and it’s making me uncomfortable. I narrow my eyes on my brother and focus my energy until something like an electric spark zips through my brain.

You pervert, I think, give the girl a break.

As if he heard me, Ian’s eyes widen and he blinks a few times. What? What was that?

Hey, is that your voice in my head? Oh my God, it really is your voice! It’s working! We’re talking mentally! We’re telepathic! Woohoo! I can hear you! I wiggle my legs excitedly.

Stop it!

Why? It’s fun! We’ve never done this before!

My head is splitting!

I cover my mouth with both hands. Oops, I’ll stop now. Telepathy, over. I shouldn't burden my brother with this.

Ian turns around immediately and slams his hand on my desk, catching me off guard. The students remaining in class fall silent and stare at us. We wait for them to start talking again before he speaks.

“Don’t do that again—”

“But Ian—”

“—without my permission,” he says it with a deep Sadie-frown. But he’s agreeing anyway, and it makes me giddy with excitement. “It freaked me out.”

I giggle then cup my mouth as he glares at me. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it would really happen.”

“I would really appreciate if you kept your nerves away from mine for the time being.” Ian risks a glance at Kiki, and a slight blush blooms on his cheeks. I don’t have to read his thoughts to know that he likes her, and he has the right to have some privacy.

“Roger,” I say as I sit back in my chair.

“I can’t believe we finally finished!” Roy and the girls walk into class, arms full with snacks and drinks. They join their desks to ours and load everything between us.

“I know! We can finally enjoy the school retreat and the winter break.” Rachel squeals with delight. She drags a chair and puts it between Ian and Kiki then sits down. Kiki tenses, but Ian doesn’t budge; Rachel must be planning something.

I hate Rachel. She’s been after my brother since we were in second grade. When I had this phase in my childhood where I cropped my hair short like Ian’s, she mistook me for him, cornered me once after gym class and kissed me. Totally. Fully. On my mouth. She doesn’t know she kissed me—and not Ian—and I don’t talk about it. So yeah, Rachel and I are each other’s first kiss, and that’s why I probably hate girls; they’re scary and unpredictable.

Now I arch an eyebrow and smirk at her. “Oh yeah.” Her icy blue eyes catch my silver ones. “But we are not going to the school retreat,” I say.

“And final exams are right before winter break,” Akuni adds, and we bump fists under the table.

Rachel’s eyes widen and she turns to Ian, clinging onto his sweater. “Really, really! Where are you going, Ian!” She yaps like a puppy, putting the weight of her voice into the ‘n’ in his name, and I swear Kiki and I cringe right at the same moment.

“Why do we have to tell you?” I mutter, glancing idly outside the door.

As if I conjured him up from my thoughts, Zel walks by with a couple guys from his class. And when he passes our window, he glances inside briefly, our eyes locking, then he continues walking. One second was enough for my heart to skip a beat, and to register that look in his eyes, and know that he’s not okay. I said I’d wait for him to talk, but that didn’t mean I was not going to bother him. I mean, I like him, and when you like someone, you bother them.

I grab my bag, and jump out of my seat. “Guys, I have to go!” I tell my friends, ignoring their little tantrums, and my brother’s eyes as they stare at me while I leave and follow Zel into the corridor.

Zel is about to take the stairs when I call his name, my heart already beating twice its normal rate; and at the sound of my voice he stops and turns around, staring at me as I run toward him. His chestnut brown hair is lazily ruffled, the tips haphazardly pushed so they intertwine into a beautiful chaos, and peeking through the thick bangs are eyes the color of honey, softly swirling browns and greens mingling together, screaming that he wants me but he can’t have me.

I’m so focused on his eyes and the deep set of his jaw to the point that I trip on my foot, bang my head at the sidewall, and spill the contents of my bag as I fall.

“Whoa . . . That was . . . unsteady.” I blink a few times to stop my head from spinning, and when the aisle stops tilting and I feel the ground beneath me, I look up. And there they are, so beautifully real that I can’t process my thoughts. They are so close I can see myself reflected in them, and I’m so small and red from head to toe. His eyes. His eyes.

I almost think I’m hallucinating until Zel speaks, pulls me up slowly, and steadies me with both hands.

“You okay?” he whispers in his thick voice.

I don’t know what to say. I’m so mesmerized by every detail of his existence to the point that I can’t seem to find my voice. And strangely enough, I have a sudden urge to cry. I close my eyes and breathe deeply to pull myself together, and when I open them again, I look up at Zel with a smile. “I’m fine. Thank you so much.”

I earn a small smile from him, and it’s so beautiful, like a thousand shining stars. I want to kiss it right away so that no one can see it. What’s happening to me?

“You’ve always been like that.” He rubs the back of his neck nonchalantly.

“Like how?” I ask as he helps me pack my bag again.

“Clumsy, and always in a hurry.” Zel presses his lips together to prevent them from curling into a smile.

I stand up and tower over him. “Really?”

“Really.” Then he looks down. “See? You have an untied shoelace, no wonder you tripped.” Zel ties my shoelace and stands up, brushing dust off my skirt and leggings; while I stand there, watching myself as if I’m someone else, burning from embarrassment and his sudden kindness. So, this is how he acts when he’s kind.

“Well, that’s me!” I try to sound as unfazed as possible as we take the stairs down.

“What did you want?” he asks.

I glance up. “What?”

“You yelled my name, so you wanted something, right? You didn’t call my name just to trip and make me help you up,” Zel says with a smirk, and my face flares.

I punch his shoulder; I’m not used to Zel helping me or teasing me, or being this cool or being anything other than the scared kid he was, and it’s happening so surprisingly fast I almost can’t believe it.

I take his hand in mine. He winces, and that’s when I notice it’s wrapped in bandages. I was preoccupied in my own head and I didn’t notice this.

“How did you—Ah, never mind.” Instead, I link my arm through his and tell him to come with me. “We have unfinished business.”

“Wha—Why are we here of all the places?”

“Wait, and you’ll see.”

I’m sitting on my knees in the shed, fishing for some gardening tools. I found pruning shears and two little shovels.

“If you stay on the ground, your leggings will get dirty,” Zel mumbles.

I toss him the gloves with a wave from my hand then carry the tools and tell him to follow me.

“Are you going to drag me around like this?”

“God!” I throw my free hand in the air. “Why do all the guys in my life have a short fuse?” Then I stop in my tracks and turn to look at him. “Would you wait for two minutes? That’s all it’ll take.”

Zel takes a step backward in surprise then walks after me in silence. We walk past the shed and into the garden, past the scarlet-red and orange oak trees and the beds where the tulips and the roses once were, until we reach the lilies. Zel puts down our bags and sits on the grass that’s now littered with withering leaves. He looks up at the floating ones and his eyes catch the sunlight, reflecting a deep red honey hue.

“We could’ve walked the short path,” he mumbles without looking at me.

I ignore my racing heart, put the tools down, and join him. “I bet you want to say: it was worth coming the long way. The view was spectacular,” I whisper.

He blushes and looks away. “Now that we are here, what are we gonna do?”

“Right, you see, we’re leaving for the training camp next week,” I say.

He nods.

“Which you are coming to,” I add.

He nods again. “Wait, what?”

“You’re coming.” Zel opens his mouth to argue, but I point my finger at him. “You’re coming. Stop secluding yourself like an old man living with ten dying cats!” I mutter.

He gapes at me.

“You’re coming. End. Of. Story.”

“God, you’re so strict,” he says with a sigh. “Fine, I’ll come.”

I reach out and ruffle his hair. “Good boy.”

He rolls his eyes. “Back to the subject, what does that hafta do with the lilies?”

“Yeah, I thought we should take a little gift for the owners of the lodge we’re staying at.”

“That’s considerate of you,” Zel comments.

“Right? And, I thought it should be both simple and special; something they can keep forever. So, I decided to save some lily bulbs for them so they can plant them next spring,” I finish with a grin.

Zel looks around in confusion before looking back at me. “I . . . still don’t understand. Why am I here?”

“What do you mean why are you here?”

“I mean, you could’ve done this on your own or with someone else. Why me?” he asks.

I start inspecting the soil and the lilies that I should be able to remove, contemplating whether I’m able to answer his question or not. “Because . . . Firstly, you’re someone else.”

“And secondly?”

I take the shear and measure the distance of three pinkies before trimming a lily. “Secondly, because you owe me,” I blurt without thinking.

Zel lies down, his hands behind his head. “What do I owe you?”

I sincerely don’t know. But I don’t say anything because one: I don’t know what he owes me to answer his question, and two: my hair is freaking annoying me! It keeps getting in the way the moment I bow my head. God! How am I supposed to finish with the wind blowing hair in my face?

“Ugh! I can’t work like this!” I reach behind to pull my hair into a ponytail, then stop short before my fingers touch it. Because Zel is right behind me, holding my wrists.

“Umm . . . what are you doing?” I ask. Suddenly I’m all tense and I can’t let go because I’ve been gripped by him before, and I know how strong his grip is.

“Your hands are dirty with mud.” His breath lands on the back of my neck as he speaks. My neck prickles, and my skin itches with goosebumps. “I’ll do it for you.”

And that’s it. Zel doesn’t wait for me to answer or object. All he does is release my wrists and pass his fingers gently through my hair, pulling the loose locks up and collecting them.

My heart picks up pace, as his fingers dig deep in the roots of my hair, grazing my neck and leaving little sparks there. I shut my eyes and try to think of something else. Think of Ian; try to communicate with him again. Think about Sadie, how she promised to take us to Hawaii after graduation. Think about the team. Think about damaging Zel’s brain cells with my brain waves. Think about—

“Mika!”

“Uh-huh?” Was that Zel? Did he just call me Mika? Am I breathing? Why does it feel like I’m not breathing?

“You okay? Did you space out? I called your name, but you didn’t respond so . . .” He clears his throat. “So I called your first name, and . . .”

“It’s weird.” Warmth spreads from my belly to my heart.

“Yeah, I’ve never said it before—”

“Wonderfully weird.”

Silence settles between us for a few seconds, but I can almost hear our heartbeats filling the air, our smiles the color of the sun, just like that time after gym class. Oh, now that I mention it—

“I was saying, what do I owe you? And, do you have a hair elastic or a ribbon or something? Your hair is too thick and my hand hurts,” Zel says.

I giggle. “Look in my bag, or in the pockets of my vest.”

He giggles, a soft sound that I think I’ve mistaken hearing, and I turn around as if struck by lightning.

Zel didn’t giggle like the eighteen-year-old he is, but like a boy, and I instantly fell in love with it. It’s like listening to his inner child breaking out. Yet everything else about him is all man. Tall stature. Muscular building. His deep husky voice. His face that wears away my anxiety. His eyes that have a softness to them. I like Zel. Each time we’re together, I feel a little less lost, a little more at home.

“That’s outta question, except if you want me to drag you by your hair all the way over there,” he suggests. We look to the other side of the lily bed where we left our bags and shake our heads. “Oh, I think I have a solution!”

“And I think you owe me a wish,” I mumble.

“Really?” He wraps a band or something around my tresses. “Are you talking about Dodgeball? Because technically, you didn’t win.”

“Neither did you,” I counter.

“So . . . ?”

“Be a gentleman and grant my wish,” I say even though my face is burning.

“Which is . . . ?”

“Which is why you’re here.” I whip around when he finishes tying my hair and swish my ponytail left to right. “You’re good at this.”

“I have four little sisters,” Zel says sheepishly. Threading his fingers through his light hair, I notice the bandages on his hand had come off.

Wiping my hands on my skirt—I’m going to wash it anyway—I take his hand. “You must be a big family.” He tenses, but I don’t let go. I’m just going to fix the band; I don’t want him to get uncomfortable around me. “Are you going to say anything?” I ask as I untie the bind and unwrap the bandage. It’s stained with blood and I don’t think it’s usable anymore.

“Lilium.”

“Uh-huh?” I remove the bandage and take a look at Zel’s hand, at the deep and red scars that line his entire palm and trail over each finger, and all I can think of is the amount of pain he felt when that happened; whatever it was; and how bold I am for not flinching or looking away. I’m not bold. I’ve seen the worst.

“Do you pity me?”

My chest tightens, but I don’t even give myself a second to hesitate before answering. “No. Why the question all of a sudden?” We lock gazes. Grey and Hazel. Blue and Green. Silver and Gold. Red and brown.

“You must pity me; you answered the question laser-fast,” Zel mutters.

My heart freezes, and my chest becomes lead-heavy.

He doesn’t know how much it hurts me that he thinks of himself like this. I walk over to my bag and fish my white ribbon, then come back to him, and take his hand again.

“I answered immediately because I’m sure of my answer. I don’t pity you, Zel. Why would I?” I make a bind around his hand and start wrapping the ribbon.

“Because I’m unstable. Because I live with kids that are homeless and crazy as much as I am. Because I’m a failure to everyone. Because I’m useless!” His voice rises with every word he says, and every word stabs me like a dagger.

I want to cry, to tell him that I know how he feels, but I have to pull myself together.

Then he slaps my hand and starts yelling. “Because I hurt myself! I’m insane enough that I cut my fingers with a shard of glass, okay?”

My hands start shaking, and I curl them into fists as I try to hold back my tears.

“Because no one on earth will ever love me except my—”

“I love you!”

It hangs between us like a blanket of snow, and the air becomes thick with charges as we stare into each other’s eyes. I watch as the honeyed eyes gleam into yellowy gold, my chest tightening and my heart beating drums in my ears. I’ve stopped breathing long ago, and I have no idea how my heart is keeping up with all this. I said I love him, and now I’m mad. Mad at myself because I didn’t say it sooner. Mad at him because he resents himself for everything that’s happening to him. This situation . . . even if I had multiple hearts, I won’t be able to take it.

“Wha—?” He grabs the collar of his shirt and tugs at it, his face turning a deep shade of red.

“I love you,” I say again, and this time my face burns, and I have to look away.

“N-No. You must be mistaken. N-No you don’t love me!”

I look back at him—troubled and his fingers knitted in his hair.

“You’re saying that because you pity me!”

“I don’t. I don’t pity you. I’ve never thought of you as pitiful! Didn’t it ever occur to you to ask why I’m with you? Why do I care about you?” I yell, fury bubbling inside me. Any moment now I might come to his face with a fist. “I love you! Do you understand, Zel? I didn’t decide this now, I’ve loved you for so long.”

Zel glances at me with an apologetic look, and I swear I could hear it before he says it, “I-I don’t. I don’t understand, Mika.”

My heart almost stops when I hear my name.

“W-Why would you love me?” He pulls at his hair, the look in his eyes ranging between utter confusion and pure horror. “I’m not worth your love, whatever that might be. I’m a useless person. Insignificant. I’m always troubled and miserable. I don’t have anything to live for!” he yells the words just like his mother whispered them in his ears, and I’m thrown back to that day, standing outside his room and listening.

“The only person who had ever loved me was my mother. And look what she’d done to me! She said she loved me, and then she lemme break and walked out on me! If that’s what love is, then I don’t want it!”

“Your mother didn’t love you!” My voice cracks, and I throw my hands in the air. “You’re not stupid, you know that your mother never loved you!” I yell, even though it hurts to say that to his face, and even though it opens hundreds of doors and states thousands of questions, but it’s the truth. And the truth will always hurt. “She never loved you,” I repeat a bit softly, “and please, please Zel”—I scoot closer—“stop blaming yourself when people walk away from your life. It’s not your fault that she didn’t love you.”

“Then what is love?” he yells, “Show me what love is!”

“I can’t show you, you idiot! Love is a very complicated feeling; it can’t be limited to one action or one word! It can’t be expressed when you ask for it!” My heart hurts, and I squeeze that space.

“You said you love me, right? Prove it to me! Show me that love won’t hurt me or break me or kill me!”

And then it hits me, a pure wave of heat inside my heart, trickling its way through my belly. My limbs. My chest. My fingertips. My toes. My neck. And I can’t hold it in; it’s love and madness and regret and pain. It’s the need to settle this down once and for all. It’s the need to give him hope, to take a step closer to the wall between us. To show him that he deserves all the best. To teach him a new emotion.

I inhale a staggered breath and tilt my head towards his. And without thinking, my hand tugs at his collar, pulling him closer. Then we kiss like there is no choice, like it’ll solve all our problems, and make our worries melt away. We kiss like each other is the finest thing we’ll ever taste. I’m his red wine and he’s my hazelnut latte. And when I pull back, his eyes are like every fantasy I’d ever had of him, every moment I had wished could exist between the two of us. The kiss, the look, a stolen moment that sets a record between us.

“I told you I’m not going anywhere. I told you I’ll wait for you. How can that not be love?” I whisper.

We stare at each other in an odd way, as if it is a silent argument. Our glances battle each other, until tears arise, and I find myself crying.

“Why did you do it?” Zel mumbles.

I hiccup, tears rolling down quietly.

“It hurts, right? I told you it will.”

I nod and wipe my tears with both sleeves. “It hurts me to see you like this. You don’t care about yourself. Why don’t you love yourself? Why don’t you see who you are?” My voice is hoarse, and for a certain reason, bile rises in my throat.

“I see who I am! I know who I am! I am a monster! I might hurt you! Aren’t you scared I might hurt you?”

I shake my head. “I’m scared I might lose you.” Then I rest my palm to his cheek. “Please, please stop right now. You are a human. S-Stop blaming yourself for being so sad. We all cry sometimes and we all have really bad days and that’s okay.” I take a breath to stop myself from shaking. “Stop blaming yourself for things that are out of your hands. Stop blaming yourself for what happened to you. I-I know you’re in pain, but you’re okay. Stop. Breathe. You’re okay.”

“I-I am okay . . . ?” Zel is surrendering to my words, his eyes lost in a mingle of thoughts.

“You’re more than okay. Stop hurting yourself. Be gentle. Be gentle with the way you’re learning to hold your own heart. You deserve to live the way you want to.”

“I deserve to . . .”

I brush his bangs away and kiss his forehead. “Start with yourself. Start with love.”

He stares into my eyes blankly. “What is there to love?”

“There’s a lot. Start with yourself. Fall in love. It doesn’t have to be with someone. Fall in love with art. Dancing in the dark. Starry nights. The colors of the sky as the sun sets. The smell of flowers. The feeling of adrenaline that takes over your whole body and suffocates your lungs with joy. Fall in love with the little things that make you feel most alive. Fall in love with life.”

“Mika . . .” His eyes shift to a dull brown and his face closes. He’s giving up. And all of a sudden, I’m really tired, like the world has drained me of everything I have. That’s it.

“I can no longer wait,” I mumble.

He looks away and rubs his face in his hands.

“If you still think you don’t deserve to live, and that you’re not a human, then don’t show up next week. Don’t come near me anymore.” And I know that deep inside I want to stay with him, I want to pull him to me and rock him until all the worries melt away, just like I promised. But if he won’t help himself to reach the light, then who would?

“Wait—” Zel pleads.

“Lilies can’t wait all winter. You’ve got to save them.”

Then I get up, not giving him a fraction of the second to pull himself together, and walk past him while all the lilies stare at me. Reaching out a hand to the delicate snowy petals, I know that this would be the last time I can enjoy this flower. After today, it will forever remind me of this memory. Of the love and pain and the taste of his lips on mine.

I hope you reach the light. I hope your spring arrives soon.

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