Just As You Are

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Chapter Fifteen

IAN

“Ian!”

I turned around and hid the book behind my back. Mom was standing in the middle of the corridor, hands on her hips, and Mika was hanging onto her skirt.

“Sadie!” I tried to sound as casual as possible, but how would an eight-year-old sound casual when he’s trying not to get caught by his mother?

She narrowed her blue eyes at me, her eyebrows knitting together, and that familiar frown appeared. “Did you eat Zel’s portion of raisin cookies?” she asked.

Ugh, Zel again; I thought as I looked away. I glanced at Mika, who hid behind Sadie’s skirt. “I don’t like that guy,” I mumbled for the thousandth time.

“Just because you don’t like him doesn’t mean it’s right to bully him,” Sadie scolded. “It is never good to bully anyone, whatever is the reason!”

Heat crawled up my neck, and I knew I should reflect on what I did, but not yet. Suddenly I felt left out; it always felt as if Sadie was taking Mika’s side, and I was left alone, and that was unfair. “Mi-chan has Sadie to stand up for her, and I have no one! I want someone too! I want Dad! Why don’t I have a father?” I blurted, pointing at Mika.

Sadie’s eyes stared at me from between her wine-colored bangs, and the ocean in them broke into soft droplets as she smiled and hugged me. “I’m sorry, my sweet son. I’m sorry that you don’t have a father.” She let go and looked at me. “But it’s not your fault that you and Mika don’t have a father. It’s Mom’s fault that Dad doesn’t want to marry me.” Her voice broke, and for the first time ever, my heart jumped.

I put my little hands about her face and kept staring into her eyes. “Who won’t marry you? You are very beautiful and kind, Sadie.”

Her eyes widened in surprise and her face broke into a grin.

“If I were a big guy, I would marry you right away. I would carry you and save you from the villains!”

Sadie bit her lip then burst into laughter and hugged me again. “You are so small and short, Ian. You can’t carry me. And you read too many fiction novels.” She let go and ruffled my hair.

My cheeks flared, but something like resolve burned in my veins. “Fine! I’ll grow up and become taller than you, and when that happens, I’ll carry you, deal?”

Her eyebrows shoot up and she smirked. “Deal!”

And we shook on it.

My heart is beating, and this is not good.

A normal heart beats seventy-five times a minute. It beats at a steady rhythm, slows down when you rest and beats fast during exercise. This is the case for all normal individuals, including me. But not today.

Today, I’m positive my heart rate is exceeding 160, which means I’m forty beats away from dropping dead, or I’m transforming into a rabbit. It’s thudding mercilessly in my ribs, and my head hurts, and my chest hurts.

Basically, everything hurts.

I know it’s not about me or Kiki; I feel more like me around her, and I hope I’d done well in my exams because I don’t want her efforts in tutoring us to go for vain; and I’m hundred percent sure it’s about my twin sister, who is clinging onto my arm as I drag us back home. Mika seems here and not here; I consider asking her what’s going on, but I knew what was going to happen the moment she strode off class this noon.

Now I shrug her off to unlock the pad key to our home, and once we’re inside, I drop my bag, take off my shoes and sigh loudly as we pass by the kitchen door. “Finally, home sweet home!”

“Welcome home.”

The voice comes from the kitchen, and I freeze. Mika, on the other hand, reaches limply for the stair railing. I grab the back of her shirt and yank her backward.

“Where are you going?”

“Ack!”

Pointing in the direction of the kitchen, I watch Mika’s face morph into a mixture of surprise and relief.

Inside is a lady in her thirties—shoulder-length dark red hair, a pink apron over shorts and a baggy faded-blue shirt—cooking vegetables, frying fish, making a very thick and creamy mushroom soup, baking an incredibly delicious blueberry cake, all while she leans on the counter, definitely listening to Chopin through earpods, drinking from a lemon soda bottle, and reading from a copy of Little Woman. My copy.

“Sadie!” Mika and I exclaim in unison.

Sadie looks up from the novel in surprise, and her crystal blue eyes stare right and left between our faces. I don’t know if I’m happy or sad to see her, but I’m sure my heart had stopped beating. Mika hangs onto my sleeve and I glance at her, her face now wet with tears.

Then I glance back at Sadie, who smiles warmly and opens her arms wide. “My precious kids!” she cheers.

Mika runs into her arms, while I stand at the kitchen door, heat creeping up my neck, hovering over going in or going upstairs to my room. Mom and Mika stare at me incredulously when I finally walk in.

“I believe this is my novel. And, is that my shirt?” I rub the back of my neck nervously. What’s happening to me?

“As nitpicking and precise as usual.” Sadie releases Mika, and takes my face in her hands, then plants a kiss on my forehead. “Look at you, how tall and handsome you’ve grown! Oh, my sweet boy.” Then she ruffles my hair, and I blush and look away.

“I-I’m not that tall. Only five foot nine.” Zel is six feet tall, that bastard had grown like weed.

“Of course you’re tall, you’re taller than me now.” She smiles, and suddenly she looks like the mom I’ve known my whole life, the one who would stay up all night to check on me when I’d be sick, and gift me a new novel on my birthday, the one I promised to protect. Only she looks smaller now.

She looks at me knowingly and I snort, hook an arm below her knees and lift her of the ground.

“Oh my God!” Sadie squeals. “Ian, put me down!”

“What’s up? Are you scared? If I remember correctly, you’re an air hostess!”

She giggles and wraps her arms around my neck. “Okay, okay, I give up. You win the deal!”

“Of course I do!” I cheer. “Again, is that my T-shirt?”

“Yes, that’s your lame T-shirt!” Mika replies for behind. “I think it’s my turn now. Put Sadie down!”

I put Mom down carefully and Mika instantly wraps her arms around her and rests her head to Mom’s chest. Mika looks worn out, so pale like a ghost, and I’m already halfway through the worry.

“Look at you, Mikki-chi.” Sadie hugs Mika just like any loving mother hugs her daughter. “You’re so beautiful. So charming. What have you done to yourself in the past six months to be this gorgeous?”

“She’d done lots of sleeping and eating.” I throw it as a joke to lighten the mood, but Mika glares at me and tells me to shut up.

Mom notices the tension in the air, and she lets go to look at Mika. “You okay?”

And that’s when the dam breaks. Mika sits down on the kitchen tiles and bursts into tears, her face in her hands.

“Shit.” Without even realizing it, I’m down by her side, pulling her to me. Sadie looks between us with concern then hugs us both, and the three of us sit on the floor together as Mika bawls her eyes out.

“I’m stupid stupid stupid,” she mutters under her breath, “I thought I could help him, I could pull him up. But it’s so . . . so . . .” Mika heaves and a fresh round of tears fills her eyes.

“Shush, it’s okay,” I murmur. It’ll always be okay. I’ll make sure it’ll be okay.

“It’s not okay. It’s hard. You don’t understand—” She cups her mouth with both hands, realizing that what she said hurt me, then she looks at me, and shakes her head. I didn’t mean it, her eyes say.

“I know,” I say out loud.

Sadie stifles a laugh. “I don’t know what’s going on.” She takes our hands and pulls us up. “But I know I’m no match to you guys. You’ve been using a secret code that was impossible for me to decipher ever since you were born.”

Both Mika and I look at her. “Actually, Mika and I can use telepathy,” I say.

“Ian!” Mika swats my arm. “It’s still under experiment,” she tells Mom.

Sadie smiles. “Whatever it was that’s going on between you guys, you are my children, and you have to tell me what’s wrong.”

Mika and I exchange a glance. “I think we’re having a family emergency meeting right away,” Mika says.

We sit around the dining table as Sadie fixes us lunch, and I watch her as she collects her hair in a messy bun above her head, and pours mushroom soup into a smaller pot. Each time she comes back home I think, she will stay our mother with her straight red hair, her beautiful blue eyes, and the freckles across her pale face. She will not change. She will not talk about our father if we don’t ask, and we will not ask because unlike the other kids, we didn’t feel the need to have a father. Sadie will keep working and putting effort to make us a good living, and she’ll keep coming back to us with her unconditional love and childish magic. She will play baseball with me because I want to try everything, and she will teach Mika to make raisin cookies, because she’s a Roselie girl and it should be running in her blood.

“Wait a second,” I mumble, and Sadie looks up at me with a smirk, “I thought you’d come home by Christmas, what are you doing here?” I ask pointedly.

“I was waiting for you to ask.” She sets three dishes of fish and veggies on the table and grabs a soda bottle and three glasses from the cabinet. “I was going to, but believe it or not, I was on a night shift during the flight to Japan, checking on travelers.” She pours the soda then turns around and brings the pot to the table. “And suddenly I had this feeling that something’s wrong. I think by living with you twins I’m gifted with telepathy too.” She closes her eyes and stands in star pose, as if power is pouring down on her. I smile.

Mika rolls her eyes, but a small smile plays on her lips. “I call this Mother Intuition.” Then she digs into her plate.

“So, you came home based on this intuition?” I ask.

Sadie joins us, and immediately starts eating, ignoring my question.

“Sadie? Sadie. Sadie.”

She glances at me with a smile.

“Nooooo! Ian, don’t do that!” Mika whines.

I smile and wiggle my eyebrows. “Sadiesadiesadiesadie. Listen, I can do that all night if I want, but I’ll end up with a sore throat. Just tell us.” I urge.

“Should I take a hunch?” Mika suggests, setting her fork down. “I can make a guess, I’m always right at making guesses!”

Sadie’s eyes widen, partly with horror. “No! Nonono!” She shakes her head and we laugh. “The last time you made a guess, you killed Chichi!”

“What?” Mika pops a carrot in her mouth. “Chichi? That poor dog? He was sick. And his owners were stupid!”

“It doesn’t change the fact that he died because you pointed at him and said he was cute!”

“Guys, you’re steering off the subject.” I remind them.

Sadie coughs and takes a sip of soda, and Mika straightens in her seat. Silence settles on us, and it takes a few minutes of eating and thousands of burned nerves later until Mom speaks again. And when she does, I instantly wish I was deaf.

“I met your father.”

My hand stills midway to my mouth, and Mika’s hand lands on her heart space. “Oh no. I think my heart just stopped,” she mumbles blankly.

Sadie holds her head in her hands, her elbows resting on the table.

I set my fork down slowly, and clear my throat. “Wha—Why? I mean, how? W-Where did you meet him?” God, I don’t know what to say! I start at my dish again to keep my mouth busy.

“It was when . . . ugh . . .” She loosens her hair and shakes it. “It was during our flight to Japan. I didn’t know he was onboard until I passed through with the drinks’ cart. It was . . . it was shocking to see him again. I felt . . . I felt . . .” She stops and threads one hand in her hair.

Mika takes the other. “Say it, Mom. Saying it will make you feel better.”

Look who’s the one talking.

Sadie squeezes Mika’s hand and retains her composure. “I don’t know. Weak. I felt empty to the core all of a sudden.” Mika and I exchange a worried look.

“And . . . did you talk or was it just a meeting?” Mika asks. I let her do the talking to stop myself from saying something stupid.

“No, you should have seen his eyes. It was as if he was looking for me. It was as if he found a first-place prize when he saw me.” Sadie takes a swig from her glass and winces; her stomach is acting up again. Mika takes the glass from her. “He asked to see me.” A long pause, where I swear I’ve stopped breathing. “Talk over coffee. I refused. He begged and begged. He said he wants to see you guys, and make up for the time he lost being with you.”

She glances between us, and the look on her face is mirroring ours. Mika doesn’t know what to say, neither do I.

“You can go and see him if you want.”

“Mom.”

“I could search up his address or we could arrange to meet here.” She twines a lock behind her ear, her hands shaking.

“Mom!”

“Or we could go all together.”

“Sadie!” I stand up and slam the table with my hand; Mika flinches. Then all of a sudden, Sadie hiccups and starts to cry. I stand frozen to my spot, watching the tears stain my mother’s face, and waiting for someone to come rip my heart out of my chest because I don’t want to live this moment.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry, okay? I know I should let you see your father. I know you want to see him and know him and I should let you go! I know I’ve been a bad mom and I’ve always let you down! I’m sorry, okay?”

I rake a hand through my hair. “What am I doing?” I mutter under my breath. In a second, my arms are around my mother and she’s crying into my shoulder.

“I’m scared!” She heaves and air moves in and out her body in gasps.

I stay there for a moment, holding onto her, and then I pull away. “Sadie. Sadie, look at me! Sadie, don’t let that overwhelm you.” I take her face in my hands and zero on her eyes; I always do that when either of my girls has a panic attack. “Mika, would you get me a glass of water?”

“Right away.” She gets a cup of water and hands it to Sadie, who drinks it after her breathing had calmed. Then a round of fresh tears spills from her eyes.

“I’m scared I might lose you guys,” she mumbles.

“Why would that happen?” Mika asks as she strokes her hair.

“What if he filed a case against me and forced me to give you up? What would I do? You are my babies; you are my entire world.”

“Mom!” We hug her again.

“No one is going to take us from you!” Mika reassures with a smile. “We’re eighteen, remember? We are allowed to live wherever we want.”

“And we want to live with you,” I add.

“Really?” Sadie pulls away and sniffs. We nod in approval.

“That asshole, he didn’t even care to ask about you! Why did he assume we exist anyway? As if we need him. We are more than enough together,” I mumble sheepishly.

Sadie rubs her eyes and wipes her tears. “Really?”

“Of course, it was always the three of us and it’ll always be!” Mika says cheerfully. “Right, Ian?”

I avert my eyes and hope my face doesn’t turn beet red. “Y-Yeah. You should stop saying really and don’t worry about that. Go have some sleep now,” I mumble.

“But—”

“Ian’s right. Let’s go get you ready for bed, Mom. You must be tired from all the jet-lag. By the way, where’s Akuni?”

“Grocery shopping.”

Mika and Sadie leave the kitchen, and I sigh loudly and stand at the sink, staring at the dishes. Where’s Akuni when I need her?

“One of my girls is off to sleep, but the other . . .”

“Hey.”

At the sound of my voice, Mika turns on her other side. “Oh, Ian.” She looks relieved.

“Can I come in?”

She gives me a smile. “Why sure, do you think you need permission?”

“You know, just in case you—”

“You open my door to check on me each night,” she mutters. I blush. “Just come in.”

I walk into Mika’s room, close the door gently, and sit on one of her large plush pillows. We gaze at each other for few minutes, me on the pillow and Mika on her bed. Her rich red hair is wet and plastered to her face. Her grey-blue eyes. Her bright smile. It’s like I’m looking at my mirror image, except it’s a female version. She got the soft features and got to be my three-minute older twin sister. I got to be the little sick brother.

I clear my throat then sit cross-legged. “You can’t sleep with your hair wet, you’ll get sick,” I say with a smile. Mika always says I’ve been the caring one and the responsible one who holds us together, even though I feel like the weak one, the reckless one, the one who always nags about almost everything. Now I give her a knowing look, and motion for her to come by my side. Mika grabs a towel and her hair dryer then sits cross-legged by the plush pillow. I take the towel and ruffle her hair like we used to do when we were kids.

“Wow I missed that!” I say over the noise of the dryer.

“You sound like a pervert,” she mutters, trying to keep a straight face.

“No! I mean I missed our little time, you know?”

“Yeah, I know. I want to spend more time with you too.”

“So, what’s up?” I ask, trying to get to the point.

She flinches visibly. “I can’t hear you!”

Liar.

“What’s going on with you?” My voice comes louder this time, and Mika just shrugs in response. I turn off the dryer and put it away. “Really?” My voice comes out dry and serious.

She hugs her knees to her chest.

“Mika?”

“Ah . . . I have nothing to say,” she mumbles, “I always have nothing to say. You always read my mind Ian. You’re the psychic twin, remember?”

“What are you talking about?” I laugh. “You’re also psychic about like, everything.”

“I mean, you always end up knowing without telling you.”

I start combing her hair. “You don’t seem to like it,” I say softly.

“I just wonder how you know.”

“Mmm . . .” For the next minute, I fix her hair into a side braid and hum a lullaby from our childhood.

Mika rolls her eyes as if I can’t see her.

“Maybe it’s twin telepathy,” I say at last.

“Does it feel like a pulse in your brain? That’s how it felt to me.”

“Maybe.” I tilt my head and look at her. “Hey, don’t change the subject.”

Her eyes shine in the moonlight, and she turns around. “Yeah well . . . I was just . . . I wanted to . . .” Her voice quivers, and I don’t wait.

As the first tear rolls on Mika’s cheek, I wrap my arms around her neck and rest my cheek in her hair. “It’s okay. I know. I know.”

“I never thought it would be this hard, that I won’t . . . be able to do anything to help Zel. It seemed hopeless, as if he was so far away and I couldn’t reach him. Zel shut me off, Ian. Do you understand?” She puts her hands on mine and squeezes. I squeeze back. “I just feel like this is all wrong. Like we don’t fit.”

“Still, you want to be beside him, right?” I ask softly.

She nods and sniffs.

“But Mi-chan.” Mika glances up at me, her eyes baby blue. “The most important thing about being beside someone is not whether you’re fit for them or not. It’s that you don’t want to release the hand of the partner that you want to be together with,” I say.

The blue breaks to little drops, and she blinks back the tears. “I didn’t realize it before. Surely . . . Maybe I’m stupid,” Mika mumbles.

“You’re not stupid, you’re just in love. Maybe it’s the urgent need to be with him is what is hindering your patience.”

“I should’ve had this conversation with Sadie, not you,” she whispers sheepishly.

I shake my head. “Sadie has a lot going on. Just imagine she’s not home and talk to me.”

Mika hugs her knees to her chest. “What am I going to do?”

Breathe in. Breathe out.

“All you can really do is love Zel. You can’t change him or make him do things he’s not ready to do. If he’s not ready to open up to you, then you can’t force him. But you can love him, maybe it’s from afar, but you can always send love his way,” I tell her.

She rests her head to her knees, pulling me down a bit. “I can’t even love him.” A pause, filled with our synchronized breathing. Heartbeats. “You have no idea how hard it is for Zel,” she whispers slowly, “the boy knows love in a way that makes love seem like a . . . like a monster.”

“Love can be a monster sometimes, not all your days are rainbows and sunshine.”

“I know, wiseass,” Mika mutters. “What I’m trying to say here is that—”

“He’s in pain and he won’t let anyone in. I know!”

“Exactly.” Her voice is sleepy, and her head tilts to the side. “Zel has all these old scars that I thrive to heal.”

I blush so hard I have to cover my face in my hands, but I can’t. This is the first time Mika really opens her heart to me. Usually, I’d know things on my own.

“I know he’s in pain. So much. It’s obvious. But those old scars are best left alone unless you’ve got the time to stick by him, to heal him after you’ve opened them up.” I stroke her hair. “I know it seems kind to ask, but in this situation it isn’t. Every one of those scars is some terrible pain, that’s why we do our best to accept people as they are and be compassionate.”

“That’s not who he is,” she mumbles, “I want . . . to go deep inside, and . . . bring him . . . back . . .”

Few minutes of silence pass without a word to be spoken, and when I hear Mika’s soft breathing, I realize she drifted to sleep. I support her head to my chest and carefully carry her to the bed.

“Stay . . .” she whispers as I tuck her in.

And I do. Mika takes my hand and I stay near her bed all night, because she’s my sister who’s three minutes older than me. Because she had never asked me to do anything for her before.

Because she’s always first.

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