Just As You Are

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Chapter Seventeen

ZEL

It’s dark. It’s pitch black here. I’m as blind as if my eyes had been gouged out. Cold is gnawing at my body as I bring my fingers to my eyes; they’re still intact. A cold breath lands on the back of my neck, and every hair stands in response. Her bony fingers run up and down my back, tracing the scar she carved with an iron poke. I still remember how the scorching fire licked my back, and the sound and smell of burning skin never leave my memory. Mama slid the iron down, and every cell in my body screamed. I screamed and cried like a wild animal until I passed out. And when I opened my eyes again, I thought I was dead. I hoped it.

The scar burns where Mama’s fingers run and her whispers of love make my stomach roil and my heart pound.

“I love you . . . I love you . . . I love you . . .”

She says it until her thick voice dissolves into a soft and soothing whisper, into a voice I’ve been living each day to hear, a voice I don’t wanna forget.

“I love you . . .”

Little cracks of light appear in the blackness. The cracks become breaches and through them a little hand extends. “Come with me,” she whispers.

I dunno why I take her hand, but I do.

And on the other side of the dark is a little girl, a lily of blue eyes and copper hair.

I can’t sleep.

My back burns, my eyes burn, and my head is swimming with all kinds of thoughts. Everything seems to be exhausting me. No matter how much I sleep or how long I lie down, something inside me seems to have given up. My soul is tired.

Each time I close my eyes I taste her. Her deep pink lips pressed gently against mine. Her sweet-sour taste, honey-lemon flavor, making me oddly hungry for more. She broke away and talked and talked, but the thumping of my heart drowned her words. I don’t remember what she said, but I clearly remember that I was scared, and that I cried.

Each time I close my eyes, Lilium is there, her thick long waves softly grazing my fingers, and her eyes, well for a lack of a better word, were grey; I could use that one word but it wouldn’t do her justice. When she crept closer and looked at me, I was struck by their coldness, like a stab of ice. Every detail in her iris was so clear, so concise. For my lack of words, she was a piece of art that nobody could understand, leaving everyone who stared confused, uncomprehending. But like I said, I could not do her justice. How could you do justice to a masterpiece?

The screwed-up kid inside me decided to mess things up, and her eyes that were holding all her powerful emotions within, melted into sparkling diamond as tears began to flow from them.

Lilium said she loved me, and every hibernating cell inside me became alert. I started screaming inwardly, and all the memories loaded into my brain without permission. I tried my best not to hurt her or push her away, but I couldn’t. Lilium triggered the worst memories I’ve ever experienced.

To me, love is a toxic creature that took everything good away. Love was Mama’s favorite game.

I walk out of my room and head upstairs to the third floor, and when I reach her door, I knock softly.

“Annabelle,” I whisper, careful not to wake anyone. I wait for few miserable minutes before she replies.

“Zel?”

“Yes.”

“Why are you whispering?” she says behind the door.

“Because I don’t want anyone to wake up,” I hiss.

“Why? Is it dark already? Oh my God! What time is it?”

“Three in the morning.” And then, “Are you going to keep me out her? I’m freezing my ass out.”

Annabelle laughs girlishly and tells me to come in. “Sorry for keeping you out.”

“Sorry for the disturbance.”

Tonight, Annabelle’s hair is fixed in two messy braids, curly tendrils bouncing about her face. Her room seems neater than before, probably because she thought I might pay her another visit.

“Your books . . .” I mumble.

“Yeah, the room has more space without them lying everywhere, right?”

“How did you do that?” I ask.

“Lucifer helped me arrange them alphabetically in the bookcases. He’s a good boy,” she says, “he has a big mouth for his small size, and he said that the scattered books should have a new bookcase instead of needing to triple-stack books over each other. I think it’s cool.” She nods emphatically.

“Yeah, very cool coming from a wiseass.” I take a seat on a beanbag; it’s blue this time.

Annabelle closes the book she was reading from—A Pocket Full of Rye by Agatha Christie; she reminds me vaguely of someone I know—and smiles. “So, can’t sleep?”

I shoot a smile back. “Yeah, I had lots on my mind.”

She looks at me as if looking through me, and says, “You always have a lot on your mind.”

How come she knows that? Is it that obvious?

“Do you want me to consult you on something?” She raises her eyebrow and smirks, and I consider releasing a bit of the weight on my shoulders since I’m already here.

“Annabelle.” She catches my eyes; hers a shimmering blue, mine a glittering gold. “Do you know what love is?” I ask.

Her eyebrows shoot upward. “Is this about that girl?”

I nod; the lily of blue eyes and copper hair.

“Hmm . . . Why don’t you answer first?” she asks.

“Why?”

“I want to know what concept of love you know.” Annabelle reaches for her notebook, and I’m having a deja-vu. I try to relax a bit, but I’m sitting on a beanbag, and if I move in a wrong way, I might sink into it. So instead of squirming around, I rub the area over my heart and thump it twice.

“I . . . dunno,” I start, “all what I know is that Mama loved me, and here I am in front of your eyes.”

Annabelle gapes at me as if to say really? Then she rolls her eyes, “What’s with that answer? Were you living in a cave or what?” she mumbles irritably.

I smile. “Ironically, I was living in a large dark room.” It’s out before I can stop it, and I notice I’m not that scared or embarrassed anymore to tell her this. “I’ve never been outside that much,” I add.

She blows at the dark curls. “Were you a shut-in?”

“I . . . dunno what shut-in means, but I know that I wasn’t allowed outside. I wasn’t allowed to see anyone. I didn’t know what the outer world was like.” I pause for a breath. “Now that I mention it, I wasn’t allowed lots of things, and Mama was the only person I would see. I didn’t know a lot of things. Does that mean I was a shut-in?”

I meet her eyes, and I swear they flicker from blue to purple. Annabelle stares at me for few seconds before shaking her head, as if releasing clouded thoughts, then she looks at me. “Not exactly, a shut-in withdraws from social life, but in your case, your mother kept you close and hella scared under the name of love.”

“So, it wasn’t love?” I ask, and Annabelle glares at me like I’m an idiot, which is the case.

“No, your mother didn’t love you! She was a freak, and if she truly loved you, you wouldn’t have ended up like this.” She pauses and pulls her duvet up to her thighs. “It makes me really wonder how you survived this.” The baby blue in her eyes is just like Lilium’s, and my mind floods with other colors of memories.

My face flushes and my eyes water. I dunno why I have a sudden urge to cry. Maybe because Mama, who was the only person I had, had cursed me for a lifetime and didn’t love me, or maybe because I rejected the only person who did love me and care about me. Or maybe both.

“Oh my God. No, Zel!” Annabelle cries. “You don’t have to say anything if it bothers you.” Her hand clutches my arm, and I look up. Annabelle had pushed herself forward in bed, and she looks so tired, as if she spent loads of energy on this little move. “I’m sorry, okay?”

I smile. “I’m fine, don’t worry.” I just realized how stupid I was for hanging on Mama’s deluding words, and shutting off anyone who comes at me with kindness. I stand up and wrap my arms around her waist, hoisting Anna backward in her bed. I don’t ask her why she can’t move or why she looks this tired. I just swallow back my tears, take a deep breath, and exhale slowly. “You asked how I survived.”

She nods.

“I was lucky. Someone came to my rescue. They took my hand and showed me the outside world. They taught me life.” They were life. Are.

Anna smiles softly. “And how do you feel about that someone?”

I blush, and my heart picks up pace. “I . . . feel grateful,” and loads of other stuff that wanna spill out. “I wanna thank her.” I look at the stars on the ceiling, fixing my gaze there. “It’s like I’m obliged to protect her, you know. I wanna make her happy. I can’t help but care for her and worry about her.” Since . . . when did my name have a special ring to it only when you said it? And if it made you smile, I’d do something over and over for ya. When did I start thinking such idiotic things like that? Looking down from Annabelle’s sky to the sky in her eyes, I see her broad grin, and heat creeps up my neck. “What?” I mutter.

“It’s just . . . I think it’s a blessing to have someone who cares for you and worries about you. I think having someone out there thinking about me, even if we’re far apart, is very reassuring. This girl is lucky for having you. I’m starting to envy her,” Anna says softly.

The little spark in my chest flickers out. “Yeah, it would’ve been nice if I weren’t pushing her away.”

“Why? Why would you do that?”

“I dunno. I always end up pushing away the people I want the most in my life, because I’m scared of getting attached to them.” That person, who always was with me, who made me attached to her and influenced by her words, had made a cursed bond of blood and pain under the name of love. Now that I kinda opened my eyes, Mama’s making me question every emotion I’m feeling. “But deep inside”—I rub my heart space again—“all I want is for someone to resist my efforts at pushing them away and tell me I am worth holding onto, even when I’m acting like a complete idiot.”

“You sure are acting like a complete idiot,” Anna says with a smirk.

“You sure are enjoying this.”

She closes her notebook. “I think I understand. The girl wants to hold onto you.” She points at me. “But she wants you to hold onto yourself.”

“How did you—?” Stop blaming yourself for being so sad. You’re okay. Start with yourself. Start with love.

“You think I don’t see how you distance yourself from other people, how you shut yourself and care about everyone but your own. I might be the girl in the wheelchair, but I’m not blind! Why do you do that, Zel?” she asks.

I swallow and rake a hand through my hair “I . . .” Why do I do that? When was the last time I thought about me?

“Do you think you don’t deserve to live? Do you think you don’t deserve to be happy because of all the bad stuff that happened to you?”

I’m a useless person. Insignificant. I’m always troubled and miserable. I don’t have anything to live for! Show me that love won’t hurt me or break me or kill me!

What is that? Did I really say that?

“I just think what there is to live for.”

Anna looks at me like I’m crazy. “You still have a lot left to live for! Rooftop dances, beach bonfires, forehead kisses, and love.” She waves her hands in the air, and I motion for her to lower her voice, but she waves me away. “Endless love,” she says. “There’s so much good in the world. And though it might seem as if life doesn’t balance out all the bad at once, it will in your lifetime. And you will be happy. Consider yourself lucky to be able to live all this!”

“I’ll be . . . happy?” Why did it sound unreasonable when Lilium said it? How thick was the fog around my heart that I couldn’t help but shut her out? Be gentle with the way you’re learning to hold your own heart. You deserve to live the way you want to. Why didn’t I listen? Why did I let her go? Did I surrender to Mama again? Do I hafta stay restrained by the shackles she chose for me? What if it only hurts me?

“What if it hurts me . . . to love someone?” When Lilium kissed me, when her full pink lips captured mine, that pain was . . . different from what’s I’ve known until now. In my slightly heavy heart, it stayed with a thud.

“Of course it’ll hurt sometimes, it’s love after all,” Annabelle says.

“What?”

“It won’t be all rainbows and sunshine.” She tilts her head. “Love is an endless mystery, because there is no reasonable cause that could explain it.”

“Are you gonna stand here forever?”

“Huh?”

“Dude, you hafta get in to find good seats!”

Lucifer pushes his sunglasses up the bridge of his nose; I dunno why he’s wearing them when the sky is this thick with clouds. It looks like it’ll open and pour down any second now. He links his arm through mine and drags me until we reach the bus stop where a lady in her twenties is flipping through papers.

The woman looks up. She has chestnut hair and fair skin that makes her pink lips stand out. Her cheeks are rouged and she’s dressed in a pair of black yoga pants and a grey band shirt.

“Morning, Coach!” Lucifer says rather cheerfully.

Her face splits into a lovely grin. “Good morning, Lucy, and . . .?” Coach studies me with her green eyes.

“Zel. Zeline Lemercier Blue.” I blush at the mention of my full name, and Lucifer throws his arm around my shoulders and pulls me down to match his height. “My big bro!” he says, loud enough that the souls of dead cats in the muddy river can hear us. “I told you about him, remember?”

“Ah! Right yeah.” She gives me a smile. “Welcome to the team, Zeline.”

“Please call me Zel, and sorry for joining on short notice,” I say with a tight smile.

I turn around the pole to get to the bus then stop in my tracks. In black leggings, black and red checkered skirt, red hoodie, and a pair of sneakers, Lilium leans against the door frame in all her hotness, her fiery hair pulled up in a high ponytail, and her eyes trained on a coffee paper cup in her hands. The moment her eyes meet mine is the moment Lucifer pecks her on the cheek. My breath catches and my chest tightens as I watch them talking and laughing casually.

“Can you really finish this?” he asks, pointing at the cup.

Lilium shakes her head and hands it to him. “I’m not into sweets; I just needed a morning booster.”

Lucifer takes the coffee cup with utter glee then hops into the bus. I can hear him say morning greetings as I walk up the bus stairs.

I stop, because her cold stare makes my muscles rigid, then I look at her. From up close, I can count the freckles splattered on her nose and cheeks, I can see her dark lashes and the arch of her eyebrows. A breeze stirs, sending stray tendrils of hair across Lilium’s face. She’s so pale that she’d look severe if it weren’t for her eyes. Behind her silver-rimmed eyeglasses they don’t look blue, but a clear bright grey.

I don’t realize I’m staring until she says, “What?”

“Nothing.”

She doesn’t seem mad or happy to see me, she just seems . . . neutral.

“Um . . . guys?” We both startle and look down. There’s a short brunette with emerald green eyes standing beside us. I think I’ve seen her somewhere. “Can you lemme in?” she asks.

Lilium backs away immediately. “Sure, I’m sorry about that, Kiki!”

Oh, right! She’s the girl who ranked the first in our grade. Kiki smiles and sits next to Lilium’s maid.

“Are you going to stand there forever?” Lilium asks, wringing her arms over her chest. “Come on, sit down.”

I look around the faces of the people who are now my teammates. They’re talking and laughing; showing how much they fit together; and everyone seems to have taken a seat next to their favorite. “Where?” I ask, trying to keep a straight face.

Looking around as well, Lilium realizes that there’s no place for me except at the front bench. “Ugh . . .” She curls a red lock. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” She takes the bag from me and places it in the cabinet above the bench. “You can sit here for the time being.”

I blink, then sit down where she asked me to, and my heart floods with heat when she sits next to me, her sweet scent of lilies filling my lungs without effort.

Lily was a pretty girl

With eyes a shining blue

And copper hair, much like the sun,

With an infectious smile, too

“Except her smile . . .”

“What?” She looks at me, flustered.

I look away. Her smile . . . gotta bring it back.

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