Just As You Are

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Chapter Thirty One

ZEL

“When you’re born in a burning house, you think the whole world is on fire. But it’s not.” –Richard Kadrey, Aloha from Hell.

Mama’s mood swings were getting worse with each passing day. Yesterday, she kept throwing things on me, and cursing me for ruining her life—which were things that happened almost every day when she would come home beaten up from work—but I considered today a blessing over all the other days. She simply came back home and slumped on the sofa, completely passed out.

I was sickened just by looking at her, so I took the stairs down, went outside the house, and sat on the bench on our front porch.

The house was old, and the bench I was sitting on was rotting. The grass was unkempt, flowers had dried long ago, and the pots were already broken. The place gave dread vibes, but the sun was out; and the fact that I was a bit far from Mama, even for a few moments, gave me a peaceful feeling.

I was so tired that I didn’t realize I dozed off, and every thought in my mind went loose, leaving space for a face that I thought was familiar to be conjured up. It was that girl with the annoying voice and short red hair. If I remember correctly, her eyes were silver, like the little dots that fill the sky when it becomes dark.

Upon a light touch, my eyes fluttered open, coming across silver eyes flecked with blue, framed by light lashes and dark red bangs.

“How beautiful . . .” she kept whispering. My heart made a leap in my chest, as if I was struck by lightning.

From that day on, she was always where I wanted her to be.

I was often to her house. It was a place to hide and she knew it, but not once was I ever made to feel unwelcome or hurried out the door. Without her, without the love she gave me in that understated way, without the gentleness of her personality, I dunno what would have happened to me. I was unstable.

What did I do wrong? What mistake did I make? Was it something I could never undo from the start? Was the problem that I should’ve never been born?

Right when I’d have those inescapable thoughts, she would appear.

She was always where I wanted her to be.

In my heart. Lighting a torch. Waiting for me at the end of the tunnel. Shaking the chaos out of me.

. . . Loving me.

I’m running through the forest, legs burning, chest caving in, and lungs screaming for a taste of oxygen. I dunno how much I ran after Lilium screamed at me to, and I don’t exactly know where I am.

My head throbs, the pain feels as if someone had taken a knife to my skull. I lean against a tree and squeeze my eyes shut, willing the pain to go away.

A chill ran through my spine when I heard her voice, it made me shudder as a freezing wind would make someone. My blood ran cold and every muscle in my body tensed, and I stood there helpless, not knowing what to do, and too scared to even move or think.

The rest of the world detached, and all I could concentrate on was the pain rooted deep in my head. All I could feel, all I knew was the pain of that moment. Mama’s hands ran up and down my back, the scar she carved scalding like hell. Her breath landed on my neck as she traced my jaw, as she dug her nails into my face.

“It’s embarrassingly painful to watch you try to live so optimistically.”

A devilish smile. Hot fire. Scorching heat on raw skin.

“Extremely.”

A piercing scream. Then blackness.

This despair is a heady blackness; the ways forward I had thought possible had vanished to black, not blocked, but like they were never even there.

“You’re going to live along this pitch-black path without potential or hope, so don’t think that you’ll ever be saved.”

The notion of hope has become meaningless. If my mind lingers on such ideas, they start to feel like cruel tricks, as cruel as any desert mirage.

Images flash through my mind rapidly, pressing on my chest as I struggle for air. My stomach roils and bile rises in my throat.

“I know what you want . . . what you yearn for . . .”

The bonds I have—the ones that keep my heart beating—feel so thin, yet they are a terrible weight. I might as well die . . . and end all this terrible suffering.

“ZEL!”

But I can’t . . . no I can’t. Because Lilium . . .

Lilium finds me hunched over, throwing up. She found me. Again. Her gentle hand rubs my back, murmuring softly in my ear.

My throat tightens; I knew I shouldn’t let her stay around me. I should’ve kept pushing her away until she would give up on me. I should’ve drawn barriers and built walls around me to prevent her love from reaching me. I should’ve stopped those feelings I had for her from growing more. After all, Love is—

“Don’t touch me!” I yell, pushing her away harshly.

Lilium falls back, a shocked expression on her face. She wipes her blooded hands on her jeans, then approaches me warily, and I jerk back violently, my back hitting a tree trunk.

“Zel!”

“Stay back!” I put a hand up. “Stay back! Are you blind? Don’t you see what’s happening? Why do you keep coming after me? Are you stupid? She’s gonna come after ya!” I snap, even though deep in my heart I wanna kill myself for saying this to her. “Just stay away from me!”

I don’t wanna get you into this. I don’t want you to become her prey too. Why did I think that by being with you, you could be happy, when all I’m doing is putting you in danger?

“How did I let myself fall in love with ya? Mama was right, Love is zero.” No matter what you multiply to it, it’ll still be zero. I hate myself for this . . . I hate myself for dragging her into this. I should’ve just killed myself long ago. It would’ve been better. For everyone.

“Zel? What are you doing? Zel!”

“You made Mama sad.”

If I’m gone from this world, will some of that sadness disappear? If I go away, maybe it’ll be the first time I’ll be useful to her.

“The world is dark. Everybody hates you.”

If nobody needs me, there’s no reason for me to be here.

“Zel!”

A sharp inhale hits my ears. A heavy exhale. Gradually, my vision clears and the earth stops tilting, and that’s when I hear my racing heart. She’s here, her breathing is loud and ragged, breaking through the deep silence of my mind.

“Zel, thank God . . . you’re fine.”

A bloodied knife clatters on the grass between us, and I snap to attention. I did it again. I hurt myself again. I look at my hands but there is nothing but marks of old scars and purple bruises. So where did the blood come . . . from?

“Mi-Mika!” I shudder.

Mika curls her injured hand into a fist, and puts on a tired smile as beads of sweat trickle down her face and neck.

“You’re fine,” she says weakly.

I grab her wrist, prying each of her fingers to inspect the injury, and totally ignoring that I’m really hurting her. “Why did you do that?” I snap. “I told you not to come near me! I would’ve finished myself and it would’ve been better for all of us!”

Her eyes blaze. The hottest fire burns blue, and her eyes are no exception. She grabs my collar and pulls me down to her eye level, “Who the hell said that?” she yells. “You think if you finished off your life, we’ll be fine? I’ll be fine?”

Gripping her wrists, I pull her closer. Mika yelps and tries to squirm out of my grip, but I’m holding her too tight that trying to free herself will hurt even more. I might as well hurt her badly so she won’t come back. “Why do you care? It’s not your life to care about!” I snarl.

“Are you naturally an idiot or what? Life isn’t something that’s owned by anyone . . .” She trails off and takes a deep, shuddering breath. “Because it’s a precious thing that should never be snatched away. As for love is zero, don’t make me laugh! Go tell that freak, zero is where everything starts! Nothing would ever be born if we didn’t depart from there, and nothing would ever be achieved!” Her voice breaks in the end, and all I know I shouldn’t be thinking that but where does she get her thoughts from?

Mika bangs my chest with her blooded fist. “You think if you leave, I won’t be scared? I won’t be in danger? I would be fine? You’re wrong!” Her eyes brim with tears, and she rests her head to my chest, her breathing closer to gasps.

I let her, because I crave for her closeness. I crave for her beauty. I’m hungry for those lips, for that pure soul that should be ruling the skies.

“If you leave, I’d feel like it was my fault that I couldn’t protect you. You know, I thought if I didn’t follow you, you’ll never come back. And if you come back, you’ll never be the same person I loved. It’ll never be the same without you.”

My heart skips a beat.

She knew that if she let go of my hand, I would never return. That I might never return to anybody. She didn’t take up all my pain. She didn’t fill in all the brokenness. But the most important thing is not that.

The most important thing . . . is that she stayed with me.

“Why would you want to leave? Do you want to leave me behind alone?” The pain in her voice pins me to my spot. “Am I not good enough for you? I’ll be better. I promise I’ll protect you. I’ll do anything, just don’t go away.”

Finding joy in the smallest things. Being happy and smiling so cheerfully. Why? She should think of herself more. Why? She thinks that she’s stupid, or that there’s nothing good about her.

I love you so much . . . just as you are.

“So what?” I stutter. “Will you be able to endure all the pain?”

“I will,” she whispers, “eventually, I will . . .” Mika traces a finger across my chest, over scars Mama left long ago, and I flinch.

“It would’ve been better if she told me why she hates me that much . . . why she doesn’t want me.” Why is it my fault?

“I know . . .”

I dunno how Mika managed to escape my grip because her other hand slides up my arm and shoulder, making sure to caress each scar with a feathery touch, over my neck where Mama left purple marks of her fingers, over my face.

Most of the scars aren’t there anymore, except for one.

Brushing my bangs out of my face, Mika’s grey-blue eyes hadn’t been any clearer to mine. Her eyes are so close we could share a breath. My ears feel hot as she keeps staring at me, then she traces the scar running across my right eye, from my eyebrow to my cheekbone, her eyes never leaving mine. “I missed those eyes.” Her whisper hangs in the air between us, but she doesn’t wait for me to react.

Mika curls a fist on my shirt and pulls me down. “And you asked why I care.” Then her pink chalky lips capture mine, and I explode into millions of shimmering pieces.

I love you.

My heart is beating fireworks and my mind is hazy, but my neck hurts like hell. This height difference won’t work for me. Without thinking, I hook an arm behind her knees and hoist her up to me. Mika yelps and wraps her arms around my neck.

“I’m wrecked,” I mumble against her neck. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Mika Lilium Roselie.”

Yes, I think I understand now . . .

I understand that regardless of how many people in this world will reject me, there are just as many who will reach out their hands to me.

But she bloomed before my eyes. She continued to bloom. A small . . . small flower. A tiny flower.

My blue heart lily . . .


MIKA

I feel like I’m falling, floating, flying. All at once. I’m sparkling like I’ve been lit by a fuse.

“I must’ve looked so stupid, crying and yelling and everything,” I grumble; my face can’t be any redder.

Still in the forest, Zel and I are leaning against separate trees, sighing and muttering things each ten seconds or so. Well, I’m sighing and muttering. Zel is just staring. His intense gaze is leaving sparks on my skin, and I’m wavering between kissing him again and killing him myself. I mean, moments ago, we couldn’t let go of each other, but right now—I don’t know, maybe I’m just tired.

The moment I saw the knife on his wrist, my mind became a black hole, and without realizing it, I was right next to him, struggling to jerk the knife away to the point that my hand bled. Where did he get that from? Was he holding it on him all the time? Was he planning for this all along?

I’ve got completely drained of energy in what felt like a tremendously hideous emotional roller coaster. But right now, I’m all wiry and jittery, my heart and mind full of him and just him. I’m so embarrassed that I can’t even look at him. “It’ll never be the same without you.”

God, I’m so dramatic!

“Stop pulling at your hair, you’ll become bald,” Zel mumbles.

“Stop staring at me!” I press my lips together and dare a look at him.

Zel catches my eyes and slowly looks up. “You must be thinking that I’m pathetic, or a coward,” he mumbles. The sun is going down, and the place is becoming dark here. I’m kind of scared, so I walk to his tree then sit down, resting my back to his shoulder.

“Is it about the pitying thing? I told you before, I don’t pity you,” I say without hesitation. “Why do you think that I would think of you like that?”

Zel curls the ends of my hair. “Because I’m still running from my mother after all this time.”

“Hmm . . .?” I lean back, back back, until my head falls into his lap.

“Whoa!” Zel flushes. “What . . . are you doing?” he asks.

I pass my fingers through his bangs—I need to say this when I’m looking in his eyes—and he freezes. “There are three things we should discuss here,” I start. “First of all, I don’t think that you’re pathetic or a coward. You think that.”

“What?” He gapes at me.

I think we’re not on the same wave. “I’m saying, these are your thoughts about yourself”—his eyes widen—“which are not true, by the way,” I add.

“How do you know that?” The back of his hand brushes my cheeks.

“That’s brings us to secondly: which is that the same person who is running from his mother, is the same person who is protecting someone from danger,” I reply with a smile. “You know, I believe that it’s the people who’d rather experience pain to protect others from it are the ones who are really strong. So you”—I let go of his hair and pat his cheek once—“are definitely not a coward.”

Zel laughs. “You have a sophisticated way of thinking.”

“Really?” Was it that hard to get?

“Yeah, like a while ago when I said Love is zero and you launched into a speech about how zero is the beginning of everything,” he rambles on and on and I blush. Then he looks down with a smirk. “These aren’t your words.”

“Yeah.” I look away. It was some detective nerd who said that. “Anyway, you don’t seem like buying my theory at all.”

“Really?” He blinks. “I think I don’t show it. My face is stony,” he mumbles.

I snort a laugh. “Stony? Well I’ve seen your face making some quite interesting expressions.” I start counting on my fingers. “I’ve seen you crying. I’ve seen you blushing. I’ve seen you smiling. I’ve seen you—”

Zel puts a hand to my mouth and leans down, his face so close that I can see brown freckles swimming in pools of honey, and smell his apple-scented shampoo. “And thirdly,” he says darkly.

I blush and smile against his palm.

“You’re smiling,” he says, then removes his hand. “And thirdly,” he repeats.

“Thirdly—which is the most important—you still call that woman your mother,” I say the words carefully, keeping my voice leveled and serious, and watching Zel’s demeanor darken. And he says his face is stony. Boy, I can read you like an open book.

“Well.” He rubs his face. “She gave birth to me, so of course she’s my mother.” Then he looks at me, “What is this look that says ugh… what an idiot?"

“Are you naturally an idiot, or what?” I say for the second time today. “If she gave birth to you, that doesn’t mean she’s your mother.”

“Huh? How come she’s not—? Huh?”

“A woman who gives birth is not technically a mother. A mother takes care of her baby throughout their lives. A mother gently caresses them. Listens to their worries. Hugs. Feeds. Protects.” My throat tightens; he never got any of this from the same person who gave birth to him. “All the while raising this baby to become a respectable person in the society.”

“But Mama gave me shelter and fed me.” Zel swallows and looks up with a loud sigh. “But she didn’t love me; you’re saying.”

I smile. “Now we’re on the same wave.” Then my eyes narrow on him. “You don’t have to keep running away from her.”

His eyes snap to mine. “Oh my God! Stop reading my mind.”

I rest my palm to my cheek and close my eyes dramatically. “I can’t resist the waves that come to me on their own.” Then I jab him in the ribs. “You want to talk to her, right?”

He rakes a hand through his hair, his right eye looking at me as if looking through me, and I shiver visibly. “Yeah, but I’m scared,” he whispers, blush reddening his face.

“Scared?”

Zel nods. “I mean, I have a bond with this woman, what if I break this bond and end up all alone? What if this bond is my first and last resort? It’s like I’m bound to her and I can’t leave her no matter what I do.”

My chest tightens; it feels like watching all your fears squeeze out and lay under the light before you. Except, I’m the one who’s watching, and Zel is the one who’s still struggling with thoughts that never crossed my mind. But how come he thinks he’s all alone, when we are all around him? Does that mean our bond is not deep enough? Am I not paying real attention to him?

“But you do have other bonds, you have all of us. You have your parents and siblings and friends. You have me.” Isn’t that enough?

“I know! But I’m scared, okay? I’m scared that one day you’re gonna wake up and not love me anymore.” Zel stares at his hands with wide frightened eyes.

My heart jumps to my throat, and a knot forms in my stomach.

“I’m scared that you’re gonna get sick of my insanity and my need for constant reassurance that you’re not gonna leave me! I’m scared that you’re gonna get fed up with my mood swings and my panic attacks and my uncontrollable fits of sadness!” Zel threads his fingers through his hair, his body shaking, and air moves in and out of him in short gasps.

Muting my thudding heart, I scramble to a seat and steady him with both hands. It feels like forever since the last time he had an attack. Last time we were watched by the lilies, and now the only eyes watching us are those of the upcoming darkness.

“Most of all, I’m scared that you’re gonna see me the way I see myself,” he mutters.

“Hey. Hey, Zel, it’s okay,” I whisper, placing both hands about his face. “It’s okay.”

“Just please, please don’t leave me.”

“It’s okay, it’s okay.” I wrap my arms around him and pat his back gently. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not going to leave you.”

“Promise?” he asks, pulling me into a hug.

“Promise.”

“But . . . things won’t be all good—”

Pulling back, I brush his bangs away and look in his eyes. We’re so close that we’re definitely breathing the same air. “Look at me.” I keep a leveled tone, otherwise I would’ve crumbled at the hotness of his eyes long ago. “Look at me, Zel, and listen to me very well.”

He nods.

“Anyone can choose you in your glow, but I will always choose you when you turn off, when you’re disappointed, and when you make mistakes. When I see the light in others, I will choose your darkness,” I say. “Do you understand?”

Zel nods again, this time with a smile.

Then I jab my finger to his chest. “Good! Now you go and show that—no offense—weird crazy woman what you’re made off.”

“Mika,” he whispers my name like it’s no big deal, and I push that fuzzy feeling down for the moment.

“And keep letting go of all these things that hurt to hold onto . . . You may not be able to get rid of it all at once, but as long as you’re alive, there’ll always be a new hope. You will bury all your memories of her in a thick wall of ice, and move on.” I put my hand over his eyes. “Close these damn beautiful hazel eyes of yours and take a deep breath,” I command.

“What? Did you just say—?”

“Just do it!” I mutter. Zel giggles. “Now steel yourself to think only about your future. With each stride your mind will be clearer, in command of your own body and soul. You are a strong person and you will walk into your own destiny.”

“Are you trying to hypnotize me?” he asks after few moments.

“Maybe,” I say as I take my hand away, and his eyes flutter open.

I curl the end of a loose lock. “All I’m trying to say is that you’re fine and I’ll always be there for you.” I’ll always shine for you. I blush but still look at his amazed expression. “Don’t make me say everything, you idiot!”

Zel giggles then winces. The scar on his cheek is still raw and had started bleeding again. I almost forgot about it.

“Ah, we must take care of this.” My fingertips reach to trace the damage, but he grasps my hand with his own. Zel leans down, far enough that the dark ends of his hair brush feather-light against my skin, caught in my lashes.

Under the starry night sky, deep in the forest between the pine trees, engulfed by his scent, and where the only melody is our beating hearts, I linger there for what feels like eternity.

Because, what else do I want?

For as many years to come, I shall watch from the place closest to you.

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