Just As You Are

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Chapter Twenty Six

MIKA

Mmm . . . What is this attractive smell . . . ? Apple scent . . . isn’t it? How much time has passed since I passed out . . . ?

Oh . . . this scar . . . Zel. The scar on his neck. The one that extends down his back. Zel . . . he’s looking at me. He looks worried. It must’ve hurt . . . that scar across his right eye. Zel . . . why is he so close . . . ? Why can I breathe his apple scent in my lungs . . . ? Why is he here? The last thing I remember is telling Kiki to start slicing lemons. Oh, Kiki . . . I hope she’s okay.

People are talking around me, but I can’t wrap my mind around what they’re saying. Everything is still fuzzy and I’m not sure where I am.

Mika . . .

It’s Zel’s voice ringing in this void of my mind.

“Mika, you’re okay. You’re gonna be fine.”

Ah . . . I wish I saw his face when he found me. I wish I saw his hazel eyes, the ones that are looking at me and only me. His eyes are worried for me, those ambers that are obscured with his light-brown hair. That voice of his that soothes me. His heart that’s beating erratically for me . . .

It’s a blessing that I can hear his heart so close . . . Wait, he’s so close. Why is he so close? H-He’s . . . carrying me . . . ?

Waah, I’m so happy and embarrassed I could die. If he’s going to hold me like that then I want to stay here forever. I want to rest my head to your chest for a bit, breathe in your scent, listen to your heartbeats, your frantic breathing as you try to get past our friends.

“Get the hell outta my way!” His voice is so close, high and rough. A guy’s voice.

“She’s coming back to her senses!”

“Really?” Is that Roy? Nice, Roy is here too.

“Yeah, she just . . . tugged on my jersey.”

That whisper . . . that happy little whisper.

Wait, really? Oh wow! As Akuni would say, Oh my, I’m definitely making my boy blush.

I’m so tired and happy. The boy is worried for me. The boy likes me.

“No, no, don’t sleep now! Talk to me, Mika. Here open your eyes. Look at me!”

It must be serious. Because my body is growing hot, and somewhere in my mind, I’m drifting far away. Somehow, I’m in Zel’s house again, watching his mother gauge his beautiful eye out . . .

“I’ll go invite him then!”

“Mika, don’t run, you’ll fall!”

“Stupid Ian, I will not!”

I started running before my little bro could follow me and bang my head for calling him stupid. I was going to invite Zel to play tag with us in our backyard. I knew where his place is because Ian and I went there together several times. I should’ve been able to remember it all by myself. There was our school, the post office, the flower shop with the nice lady, and a loooong forested and dark way before his house came into view. His house seemed a bit old. What did Ian call it? Oh yeah. Shabby.

I crossed the front porch with a jump and knocked on the door. “Excuse me! Zel, are you home?” I yelled. No one replied.

“Zel? I want to invite you to play with us in our backyard!”

Still no response.

“Hmph, stupid Zel, how can he make a lady wait like this?”

I sat on the stairs of the front porch and waited for a while, and when I decided to leave, a loud thud sounded from the house.

“Hmm?” I walked to the door and tried the knob. “Ah, it’s open! Zel, I’m coming in!” I excused myself for intrusion and left my shoes at the door. “Zel? Where are you? Are we playing hide and seek?” Why is it so dark in here?

Another thud. I stopped in my tracks and tried to listen. It happened again, and it was coming from upstairs. I took the stairs one step at a time, the sound becoming louder and louder as I went up, listening so as not to lose the source.

“You useless brat!”

I flinched. Someone was yelling, it was coming from a room in this floor.

“Stop deluding yourself. The world is pitch black. It’s dark. There’s no hope for you,” a voice slurred; it became clearer as I was getting closer. Where is he? And whose voice is that?

“You’re useless. No one needs you.” The voice was faking softness, and the words were stabbing daggers. It’s a woman. It’s coming from this door. “You’re better dead,” the voice said.

I flinched, and my heart almost lurched to my throat. Who is this person and why is she saying such things? It’s scary! I have to get Ian. But where’s Zel? What if he’s in there? What if this woman is in there with him?

I opened the door enough for me to see into the room. It was dark inside, and the only light was coming in from the faded curtains. There was a woman in there, smiling sickeningly, and there was a kid by her feet, hunched over himself, his legs and arms purple with bruises and cuts, hands cuffed and chained to the wall. My stomach roiled, and I wanted to run away, but my legs couldn’t move.

The woman nudged the kid with her foot. “You’re useless. Insignificant. No one needs you.” Then she smiled and knelt down, coming into view. She was blond with hazel eyes, and when she grabbed the boy’s face in her hands, I sucked in a breath and put a hand over my mouth.

Hazel eyes that twinkle like morning light.

“Are you gonna die, Zel?”

Zel!

I couldn’t breathe. Everything in my body ached. It was him. This ugly thing was happening to him and we didn’t know about it. That was why he’d always wear long sleeves. That was why he didn’t allow anyone to touch him.

“You can’t allow yourself to be cared for. You’ll bring misery to people, the way you brought it to me,” the woman hissed with a smile, “I’m your mother. I’m the only one who gives you life. Without me, you are dead. You are useless. You’re going to live along this pitch-black path without potential or hope, so don’t think that you’ll ever be saved.”

Oh my God! Bile rose up my throat, as if I was about to puke. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing and seeing. I couldn’t stand this amount of hate he was living with. Mothers are supposed to be loving, caring, selfless. But his mother is just needy, selfish, ugly. No. His mother is not a mother.

Zel smiled, a calm smile that he put on every day, pissing his mother off. She slapped him across his face, and he fell back with a thud, the shackles jerking him on impact. I tried not to gasp as he got up and wiped blood from his mouth.

“You should be obedient. Care and love your mother only just the way she loves you!” she yelled. Then she grabbed him by his shirt and lifted him so high that I could see the scar on his pale skin below his shirt.

“What are those eyes?” she growled. “Why are you looking at me like this? Do you want me take out your eyes?”

Zel’s eyes widened, catching the little bit of sun that escaped through the blinders. I tumbled backward, my feet no more lead, watching splinters of glass flying about his face, and blood flowing from his eye. He fell down helplessly, his mother heaving by his side.

She’s a monster.

I sprinted into a run, couldn’t care less that my feet were thudding on the wooden floor, or that my heart and breath sounded higher than the noise outside. All what I was thinking of, all what I cared about was Zel.

I wanted to get him out. I wanted to free him.

I wanted to protect him.

I flung the door open and ran outside barefoot, coughing and wheezing, then braced myself and ran to the nearest telephone booth. I felt like throwing up. Breathe, Mika, breathe. After putting a coin, I dialed the emergency number that Mom gave us to use if someone suspicious knocked our door when we were alone, then I waited for a bit before a man picked up the line.

“Eustitia Police, emergency department, how can I help you?”

I took a deep breath and yelled into the phone. “Help him! Help him! I want you to help him please! NOW!”

“Calm down my dear. Who is it you want us to help?” the man asked softly.

What a stupid question, Zel of course. “He’s my friend.”

“And what’s happening to your friend? Is he lost? Is he a cat?”

“What? NO! He’s a human, like us. And he’s not lost. His mother is taking his eye out!” I yelled.

The man laughed. “Sweetie, what are you saying? Why would a mother do that?”

“I don’t know! But I saw her. She hit him with a vase and his face is bleeding! Please come. If you don’t come now, she might kill him!”

Scratching noises sounded from the other side. “A-Are you sure about that young lady? You know there’s a punishment for giving the police false information!”

Is he accusing me of lying? “I’m not lying!” I pressed at my heart space that was aching for a certain reason. “I swear! You have to come, please!”

“Okay! Okay! Calm down and tell me your whereabouts,” he ordered.

I looked around. I was eight, did I know where I was?

“I don’t know the name of the street, but there’s Eustitia Elementary, the post office, a flower shop, and a long street full of large trees before my friend’s house. Oh! And it’s kind of shabby.”

“You are smart my dear, can you tell me your friend’s name?”

“Yes, it’s Zel Lemercier.”

“Good job! We will be there as soon as possible! You heard me everyone, call units one and two and—”

I slid down the glass of the telephone booth—they’re coming to save him—wrapped my arms around my shins and let the dam of tears break. Each scream that escaped my throat was loaded with pain that I had no idea I’d experience. The image of Zel’s frail body cut with scars, the way that monster swung the vase at him, the way his eyes stayed so wide and staring until one of them turned off is not leaving my mind. It got engraved on the backs of my eyelids.

Zel didn’t scream. He didn’t yell. He didn’t ask for help. I couldn’t believe that there might be mothers who’d want their children dead. Mothers who’d do anything to satisfy their selfishness. I couldn’t believe in such an ugly mother. Ahh, finally, the sirens coming closer.

“Ahh! Ian! She’s here!”

I opened my eyes. Everything was still blurry from the tears, but I recognized the voice.

“Oh, Mikki-chi! What happened to you? What is it? Why are you crying?” she asked in a soft voice as she wiped my face with her sleeves. Mom’s face finally came to sight; her beautiful silky red hair and blue eyes that shone like the pure sky. When I looked at her, I knew I was safe, because my mother would never do that to me. There was no questioning.

Burying my head in her chest, I cried. “Sadie! Don’t you ever give up on me, promise? Don’t do that to me, promise?” Don’t hurt me! Don’t leave me!

Sadie laughed. “I don’t know what happened to you and I’m sure I have to know, but yes of course my love, I’ll never ever give up on you. I promise. I’ll never leave you, I promise.”

She wrapped her arms around me and carried me outside the booth. Ian was waiting for us on the other side of the street; he looked flushed and tired, as if he had run a mile.

“Ian found you, Mika,” Sadie said with a smile.

But I didn’t smile back. Despite the fact that Zel was safe, I didn’t smile back. There was something else I felt, a bad feeling crawling its way to my heart. It was when my brother dropped down on the street that I knew it.

From that day on, I got all the nightmares, and my brother got all the sickness.

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