Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Four

KIKI

As our days in Eustitia Lodging House come to an end, I notice how well the soccer team members are bonding together, and that training under Mika’s strict system is bearing fruits. Also, I’m getting used to my duties as a manager. Since Akuni is around; and because she is well known as a good cook; I’ve been promoted from my position in the kitchen to running after the ball if it rolls outside the field, and after the team members during the morning run.

“You’re so good at running,” Ian had said when he suggested this, “instead of running away from me, you can use your skills for good.”

My blushing face gave me away, and I haven’t seen his handsome face up close since then. It feels like the moment we started going out, all I’ve been doing is getting messy and sweaty, and running around like a rooster.

“Kiki!”

I flinch and glance up. Ian is at the goalpost, pointing at me. “Stop spacing out and get the ball!” he yells.

I get up from my squat position, run to the corner of the field, and kick the ball towards Clara. Ian is right; I shouldn’t be zoning out. I should be looking out for the team, I think as I walk toward the benches, but that doesn’t give him the right to yell like that. But then again, everyone seems tense as the match nears.

Even Mika is not herself, her eyes are darting around with Zel, and a grim expression is clouding her face. I mean, he doesn’t get tired as fast as Ian—who runs two laps around the field then fakes death—so why does she look so worried about him? All the more, Zel has taken control of the entire field, and no one was able to take the ball from him yet. It’s like he’s the commander.

“Forwards! Always keep in mind where the pass line is when attacking!” Zel yells as he runs past Roy and Tabitha.

“Yes!”

“Midfielders! Always have a good idea where the ball and opponents are positioned!” He feints with his left foot then thrusts forward with his right, advancing beyond Tony and Marsha. I can’t help but notice their bewildered faces.

“Keep imagining conditions when the ball can be stolen!” he yells as he tricks Lucifer into the same feint.

“Man! Screw it!” Lucy yells.

“Defenders! Whenever you see a chance, come up to attack! Defending all the time won’t help us win!”

“Understood!”

“Oh wow,” I mumble, “Zel is in the middle of the field, but he can see the movements of the defenders behind him?” I ask, glancing at Mika. But Mika is not here; she’s clutching her pad close to her chest, her face as red as her hair, and a smile of satisfaction is spread across her face. Her head is surely up in the clouds.

“He’s amazing,” she breathes, “I mean, we used to run after the ball when we were kids just to play around, but I never thought he’d work hard on it and turn out to be this spectacular.”

I nod. “It’s like he has eyes in the back of his head.”

“Zel is a player who can see everything on the field, as if he were watching it from the sky.” Then Mika points at her brother as he marvelously arches toward the ball and blocks it, making my heart leap and dance around my lungs.

“Look at that, he even made Ian smile. No one makes Ian grin like a goofy kid.”

I find myself smiling too. “They’re working really hard.”

“And that’s when our turn comes,” Mika says as she turns to me.

“Huh?”

“Come on, let’s go.” She takes my arm and drags me behind her.

“What are we gonna do?”

I watch as Mika roams around the kitchen and searches the cabinets above and under the counter, clueless about what she’s looking for. She comes out empty handed. “Do you happen to know if they have honey here?” she asks.

Oh, so that’s what she’s looking for.

“It’s in the cabinet by the door.” I point at the farthest cabinet in the kitchen. “It’s the farthest from the sun and air.”

“Mmm . . . the perfect place to store honey.” She carries the stool up there and successfully emerges with a jar.

“Why do you need it anyway? You know—”

“Ian hates sweets.” Mika completes with a smirk. Crap, she’s right on spot. “I know.”

I blush. “Yeah, so why do you need it?”

“I’m making one of Mika’s Magic Charms!” she declares quite enthusiastically. Magic Charms? As if she’s reading my mind she adds, “It’s a snack I used to make for the team to restore their energy really fast. I’m making lemon slices dipped in honey!” Then she starts raiding the freezer for lemons.

“Oh. Wow.”

“I know, right? But I don’t think these are enough.” Mika comes out with three lemons and puts them on the counter. “I’ll go check the storage room downstairs, please start slicing.” She winks at me and strides out of the kitchen.

I stare at the lemons, and the more I stare at them, the more I can’t get a grasp on the dreamy thoughts invading my mind. Lemons. I encountered Ian upon a lemon soda bottle. They’re the source of his attractive scent. That’s what he tasted like when heWaah! Stop. Stop! I should start working. Yes, yes. It’s time to work.

Untying my twin tails, I pull my hair into one thick ponytail and tie it up with one of my red ribbons, then I wash my hands, put on an apron, and start slicing the lemons, letting their fresh scent engulf me.

Lemons are Ian’s favorite, you must be thinking.”

I stop slicing halfway and glance up. Rachel is leaning against the doorframe, clad in a black crop-tank, red jacket, khaki A-line skirt, and cutout high-heeled boots. She has this fierce look on her face, and her lips are tainted with a bold red lipstick.

“Yeah, he likes them,” I say with a smile, but the tightness in my stomach starts to take over. I go back to slicing lemons, yet sensing as Rachel approaches me slowly.

“You must be thinking; that’s his scent.”

My eyes widen, but I don’t stop working.

She takes a slice and sucks on it. “Waah, you think you’re so lucky that Ian chose you over everyone, right?” she hisses over my ear.

I don’t flinch or stop what I’m doing, but my throat tightens and my stomach flips with a feeling I’ve been burying deep for so long, making my breaths become shorter and painful. Why is she doing this? Is that all because she’s jealous? What does she want from me? I didn’t hurt her or say anything even after Ian and I started dating.

“You must be so happy that you’re Ian’s girlfriend now. What? You’re not going to say anything?” Rachel’s voice picks an annoyed tone, and all I could think of is keeping my breathing even and loosening the tight knot in my stomach. How did she know about that? And where’s Mika? It’s like she’s been gone forever.

“So you’re going to ignore me, fine!” Rachel slams her hand on the counter and starts yelling, “Did it ever cross your mind how hard it’d be for me? I’ve loved him way before you came and tried my best to make him acknowledge me, but then you come.” She jabs her finger at me. “You, the person with zero existence. The lamest person I’ve ever met in my life. You come and take him just like that!” Her voice is not that loud, but it’s filling my head and I can’t hear my heart or even my breath.

“You must be oh I’m so happy Ian splashed me with soda. He wouldn’t have splashed you if you didn’t bump into him on purpose, you lowly scum,” she hisses, and my hand loosens over the knife handle.

That wasn’t on purpose, I want to say, I didn’t bump into Ian in the first place.

“You don’t know how it feels like when the person you like doesn’t like you back, it’s so heartbreaking! Why should I be brokenhearted while a shrimp like you takes everything? Why aren’t you saying anything?” Rachel grabs my wrist tightly and shoves me away of the counter to look at her, and the knife falls to the floor.

“Don’t you have anything to say to defend yourself? The likes of you don’t have a speck of self-respect!”

The likes of me. What’s wrong with me? Why am I not saying anything? Is it because I never saw it coming? Because I never thought Rachel would be this mad? Or because I know that whatever I do Rachel will overpower me?

“Sure you don’t.” Rachel’s voice is emotionless, and a smirk plays on her lips. “It because you bewitched him.” She grabs my other wrist firmly and shakes me violently. “What have you done to him? You ugly b*tch!”

Why are you doing that to me? Leave me alone! I didn’t do anything! Just let go of me! I struggle and try to twist out of her grip, but she’s is so strong. My voice. I can’t find my voice!

Rachel pulls me to her, her face becoming inches from mine. Her eyes are icy-blue, madness seeping from them. “Aren’t you a stone? You can’t run away from me.”

Stone.

As if something had snapped inside of me, as if my heart is a closed cage dejecting every emotion, my mind blanks and my knees give out. I fall on my knees in surrender, Rachel still gripping my wrists. It’s true. It takes one single thought to break down every bit of courage I’ve been building up. It’s weird, huh? How your heart is always on fire and then all of a sudden it turns to ice.

I’m not ugly. I’m not ugly.

“What? I can’t hear you? Did you say something? What? You’re not ugly? Of course you’re ugly. Do you want me to show you how ugly you are?”

Stone. I can’t believe how lowly she is. Such a runt. Quite good she doesn’t have anyone to rat on us to.

With a numb mind and a shaking body, I watch as Rachel grabs the knife off the floor. Memories flood my mind all at once; the way the girls cornered me in the bathroom and tugged at my hair, each carrying a pair of scissors and cutting at the edges.

“Tell your parents you had a bad haircut. That is,” Rachel murmurs in my ear, “if you have the courage to. Little wuss.” She removes the ribbon from my hair and runs her hand through it. “Ian liked you because of your pretty hair, right?” She smiles. “Let’s see how pretty it’ll be after this.”

“No. No no no. Please no.” The voice coming out of me is hushed and broken, like the whimper of a tiny animal. I struggle to get out of her way, but Rachel grabs my hair, and pushes my head down so that it’s between her legs.

“Shut up you freak. Yell as much as you like, no one will hear you, you little snitch.” Her voice mixes with the chipping sound of the knife, and all I could see are locks of my hair falling at my side. What are you doing? Why are you doing this? You have no idea how hard it was to accept my new look. I’ve waited my entire life until it grew taller again.

“Learn to know your place, you lowly scum. You have no existence and that’s how it should be.”

You have no idea how it feels when no one recognizes or acknowledges you. You have no idea how it feels to be pathetic.

“Don’t touch the things that aren’t yours. Ian is mine, so learn to stay out of his way. No one wants you,” Rachel spits.

But Ian wants me. You say no one wants me, but there is one person who wants me, and this person is enough. It made me happy that he chose me over everyone, it is as if light is bouncing in my chest.

“No one is going to like you.”

What am I doing? Why am I letting her do this to me?

React someway. People who want to change don’t run away. You have to face them head-on.

Enough! Yes, enough!

Pressing myself up to my arms, and putting my entire power in one blow, I thrust a fist to her guts and push her away.

“You lowly—”

I don’t wait for her to collect herself. My hand flies across her face, rendering her aghast. “I-If there’s anyone who should know their place, then it should be you!” I growl. Trampling on everything; my hair, my heart, my feelings; I give Rachel one last kick before stomping off to the back yard.

My breath staggers. My heart pounds. Soon, I’m leaning by a window and gasping.

Ah . . . what happened? Whose reflection is that? Who’s this girl? Why are her eyes this fierce? How did her silky and waist-length hair end up like this? How did her heart become this heavy? Like a stone. Where is she now? Is she curled up inside herself? If I dig down, will I find her again?

I slide down to the ground; the last thing concerning me is the dust and dirt on my pants; and curl over myself. I’m scared. I was so fierce. I broke so many walls all at once. Is this how it feels like to be brave? If that’s how it is, then being brave is scary. Being brave is hard. It’s hard when I know there’ll be more trouble waiting for me down this path.

But as hard as it is, I learned something about myself; that I could live through such a thing and survive. Here I am, intact but a bit broken. All I needed to do was to start. To start where I am. With fear, with pain, with doubt. Start with hands shaking. Start with voice trembling but start. Start and don’t stop. Start where I am, with what I have.

Just . . . Start.

My eyes are heavy with tears, threatening to fall. My chest is burning . . . it hurts. He’s calling me from somewhere.

I dunno how much time I spend alone, staring at a very blue sky, pondering about why that happened and why I did what I did, and I come up with one answer: I’m who I am. I own my life and live it the way I want. And I don’t wanna live it in the dark. If there’s a little glimmer of light, then I wanna grasp my hold onto it.

Just like that time I screamed and reached for Ian to help me, now I lean onto his warm and solid chest, my mind silent of every voice, my heart beating along his, and let him shower me with his kindness.

And love.

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