Just As You Are

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Chapter Five

ZEL

I pulled my knees to my chest and wrapped my arms around my shins. I wished I could just curl into a ball, and hide or disappear from this world, away from all the terror. Paralyzed in fear, the scent of perturbation invaded the room. My feet refused to move and all my hands could do was cover my face. I’ve never wanted to be safe so much in my life.

I coughed. And I wished I didn’t.

Immediately, my cough echoed, getting quieter every time through the dark room. I knew the room was very big, and that my nightmare was lurking right around the corner.

The door creaked as she slid inside, a glass of red wine in her hand, glowing in the moonlight as she set it down on my nightstand. She sat on my bed and leaned forward, carrying the sickening smell of booze, her blond hair swaying over her bare shoulders, and when she gave me that sly smile, her hazel eyes twinkled.

The same color as mine.

The color I hate the most.

She grabbed my face, her red-polished nails digging into my skin. I could see my reflection in her eyes, small and terrified. I wanted to die. I didn’t mind dropping dead right away. I didn’t wanna stay here with her. I couldn’t stand anymore from this woman. Why I was bonded to her, why this hideous person was the one who gave birth to me were questions I wouldn’t get answers for. Why, of all the people in the world, did I get to have her as a mother?

As if reading my mind, she turned my face to one side and breathed in my ear. “You’re afraid, my beautiful baby boy . . .” Her voice was intimidating, rooting me to the spot to the point that I couldn’t even plug my ears or shut my eyes.

My hands trembled, my breath shortened, and my pulse drummed in my ears. All I could do was believe what she said no matter what it was. Beads of sweat trickled down my neck as she threaded her fingers in my hair.

“I told you don’t go there,” she slurred, “don’t leave me.”

But I can’t. I can’t stay with you. Being with you is killing me. I’m sick of you!

As if a switch had clicked inside her, she pulled my hair, jerking my head upward. I sucked in a breath as she glared into my eyes. “I told you, if you’re leaving me, I’ll kill everybody who touches you.”

No, you can’t kill anyone!

“They’re your little friends, right? I’ll cut their little fingers!” she said with an evil smile. “Then their little toes.” And she went on with her fantasy.

But you can’t! They’re my only friends, and I love them!

“What? Do you love them?” She lifted my chin so I could meet her eyes. “Maybe if I do that to you . . .”

No! No! I won’t do it again, I promise! I won’t go out again, I won’t leave you!

“But I can’t. Because I love you. You’re my precious treasure. I’m the only one who truly loves you, okay? Stay with me!” She downed her wine and smacked her lips together.

Bile rose up my throat.

No you don’t. You don’t love me. You’re a monster! I wanted to yell and scream, but I couldn’t. I wanted to tell her to leave me alone. Or kill me. Yes, kill me! It’s easier if it will spare the ones I care about.

Outta nowhere, a knife appeared in her hand. She tilted her head as if possessed by a demon and smiled, her white teeth gleaming in the dark. “I’ll kill them!” she screamed, and the hideous laugh echoed in the room.

“Please don’t! I beg you please don’t!”

I scramble up with a start, my heart throbbing painfully.

The room is strangely lit with a dim blue light. Birds are chirping. Light blue curtains fringed with lace are billowing in the refreshing breeze, bringing in the familiar scent of lilies mixed with the delicious smell of cookies and cupcakes baked down in our kitchen. My pajamas cling to my drenched skin, and my breathing finally recedes to normal as I realize that I’m in my room, in my bed, back in my house.

It was a nightmare. I’m fine. Everyone is fine. No one’s gonna die.

I’m back. I’m back in Sky Garden.

I rub my face and rake a hand through my hair. It’s the nightmare, the same one as always. It is Mama who always appears in my dreams, and every time she tries to torture me or kill me. I know it’s not real, but the pain from this happening each time I close my eyes makes my body lead-heavy. It really makes me wanna die. Maybe I should ask Dad to increase my doses.

I swing my legs to one side of the bed and support myself with the nightstand. The glass of wine is not here. The child who was sitting on the floorboards is not here. The wallpaper is not scratched. The floor is clean and carpeted. I’m here. I’m here.

Why is it happening after all this time?

I drag myself outta bed and straight into the shower.

The water pours down and drips by my side, as my mind fades into dullness and everything becomes a foggy illusion. The sensation of the steamy water calms me; it takes my mind off things. Things that I’ve spend my seventeen years trying to escape. It’s soothing, but it can never last. I know, because in the next ten seconds the four-year-old Emma will come rushing into my room, banging at my—

“Zel Zel Zel! Get out. Get out. Get out!” And there she is, whining and banging at my precious cherry-wood bathroom door with her small fists. She’s early today.

“Can’t. Showering,” I mumble as I wash my hair with an apple-scented shampoo. I wipe the fog off the bathroom mirror and stare at my reflection for what feels like a day, inspecting every inch of my face. I’m so pale and every scar looks so new that Mom will certainly object about me going to school today. The scar across my right eye is the most visible, cutting through my eyebrow and reaching down to my cheekbone.

Emma bangs on the door again.

“Use your kiddy toilet, this is my bathroom.” I’ve said that like a thousand times and yet she still comes and interrupts my shower every single day. I didn’t even start shaving.

Usually, she would barge in, together with our dog, Rover, because Connie would be using the bathroom, and because Rover likes to play in the bathtub; and then that stupid dog would steal my shaving cream and run away.

“I don’t need the toilet.” She urges. I could picture her bottom lip quivering, and tears falling silently from her bright blue eyes. “Rover is not moving,” she says in a small voice.

“Oh.” So our dog finally decided to share me the depression. I don’t say that because Mom forbids discussing such topics with children younger than fifteen. But that doesn’t sound good. I open the toiletries closet to grab my shaving cream, but I don’t find it. Cool, Rover did eat it this time.

I sigh. “Okay, Emma, sweetie I’ll be right with you in a minute. Can you please wait for me outside the room?” I ask, running my hand over the scar across my chest. I can hear her gulp; she’s sad about Rover, he’s her best friend after all, but I dunno if she says anything more because I’m busy getting dressed before I lose myself in inspecting my body in the mirror.

I hate mirrors because to me, they don’t only show my reflection—which is hideous—mirrors are also a portal to my past.

And believe me, I don’t wanna dwell on my past. No one wants to.

By the time I get outta my room—I’ve already used the last of Dad’s shaving cream and put on a pair of jeans and a black sweater over my uniform—I find Emma sound asleep, her head resting next to a big yellow flower she had scrawled on her side of the wall; and Nathan, my five-year-old brother, running with plane arms towards us, with one of the maids following him. He’s probably high on sugar.

I pick Emma up and tuck her back to bed with Precious, her pink teddy bear, then go downstairs to the kitchen, where I find Mom lying on the side couch, wearing a facial mask, and two cucumbers slices for her eyes; and Anita—our housekeeper—sitting at her feet, and polishing her nails a dark blue.

Connie, Belle, and Julie are sitting around the table, making screeching noises with forks and plates. Lucifer and Windy are nowhere to be seen. Perfect. What’s more exciting than hanging out with three little devils first thing in the morning?

“Mom.” I groan.

She doesn’t even budge or look at me.

“Mom!”

This time, she flinches, and the girls drop the forks and stare at me in horror. They obviously don’t like me. No one likes me in this house. It’s okay, I’m used to it.

Anita stops painting Mom’s nails. “Good morning, Master,” she says, then stands up and starts brewing coffee and making me breakfast.

“Why are you frowning first thing in the morning?” Mom asks without even looking. “Can’t Mom take a small break?”

“Oh, excuse my rudeness. Of course you can while these devils are making this ear-splitting noise,” I mutter.

She removes one cucumber slice and shoots me a look before putting it back. “Zel.”

Breathe in. Breathe out. “I know. I’m sorry for being rude, okay?” She’s right, she needs a break. Maybe a coupon for complete services in the spa up in the mountains will do the trick.

I mean, any mother of eight adopted children and a daughter of her own needs a long and satisfying rest, otherwise she would have a major nervous breakdown—which is not in the good for me, being the oldest in this household. Taking care of a newborn left under the tree or in a carriage, two little girls whose parents gave up on them, a child whose hyperness is triggered by a couple maple candies or Chupa Chups lollipops, a boy who was bullied despite his handsomeness, another who was about to get killed, and a rebellious teenage girl with a tongue as sharp as a razor is more than a serious issue. That all, as well as raising her own daughter and taking care of her husband.

I always ask myself how I ended up here and why, and I always don’t find an answer. All I know is that my biological mother was about to kill me when the police showed up at our door. Few days later, I was taken into custody by Dr. Daniel and Jocelyn Blue.

All together, we live in this three-storey house with a garden and a shed around it, under the same sky and the same roof. We might not be blood-related kids, but at Sky Garden, we surely are brothers and sisters. Everyone is family, and everyone is allowed to be who they wanna be at their own pace.

It’s a loud and a crazy place, but it’s lovely. It’s been my home for almost eight years now.

“I was trying to get your attention,” I say.

“Oh honey, I’m sorry.” Mom sits up and ties her curly black hair with a red scrunchie, then removes the cucumber slices off her eyes, but leaves the mask on. She looks ridiculous, and I try my best not to laugh. “Here, I’ll hear you out.” She pats the seat next to her.

I point at the girls.

“Mmm . . . darlings, why don’t you help Anita with setting the table?” she suggests, and the girls squirm outta their chairs and start roaming around the kitchen like bees.

“So, what is it?” she asks me.

“No, it’s nothing important—”

“Come on! Let your Mommy hear you out!”

My eyes widen and I blush. Does she hafta say that each time? I’ve stopped calling her Mommy a long time ago. It’s embarrassing, especially in front of the kids! I hafta tell her about the dog before he dies. “No, Mom really, it’s just about Rover.” Get to the point. Get to the point! “Emma said he’s not moving.”

“Oh really! So you don’t wanna talk to Mommy?” she says with a pout.

What’s worse than a caring mother, is a perverted caring mother. My face burns, and I can see Anita’s smile in the corner of my eye as she fries my bacon and makes sandwiches for lunch. The girls giggle.

“Mom!”

“Hehe. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Okay, so . . . ?” She wipes her face with a wet towel, and bright blue eyes look back at me.

I clear my throat. “You gotta take Rover to the veterinary. I believe he ate my shaving cream.”

Mom gapes at me.

“You know how important he is to Emma,” I add.

Her face beams with nostalgia. “Yeah, you’re right,” she says softly. “They arrived together after all.”

I can’t let her dwell into memories because that needs more time and more tissues than I have, and we might end up sitting around her with our childhood photo albums in her lap. So, I change the subject and join the girls in setting the table.

“Where’s Lucifer?” I ask.

“He said he’ll drop Windy off on his way to school. And he has soccer practice.”

Poor Lucy, I wonder if he can handle that girl on his own; she comes with a special package of jibes and taunts, and offers them even though she knows you don’t wanna hear them.

“I’ll try to make time for his next match,” Mom adds. “Aren’t you gonna join the team?” she asks.

“I’m working on it.” I lie, even though joining might help me take my mind off things. But what’s the big deal? “What about Nate? You know, he’s all over the place now,” I mumble, stuffing my mouth with bacon and eggs. “Mmm! You nailed it, Ani!”

Anita gives me a grateful smile and excuses herself to check up on Nate and Emma. The girls follow her like a peep of chicks.

“Don’t worry,” Mom says, staring at her polished nails, “he’ll get tired and sleep soon.”

Then she glances up and fixes her blue eyes at me, and I can’t help but smile. My mom is so kind and beautiful, and just like Lucifer, she knows how to distract me to get me to talk. She’s a master at it.

“What?” I ask with a full mouth.

“Have you talked to her?” she asks.

I swallow the lump in my throat, and put on a pretend face. “Who?”

Mom’s eyes narrow knowingly, then she points outside the window, where all colors of lilies stand gloriously next to the tulips in our flower bed. “Lilium,” she says with a smirk.

“No,” I reply curtly, but I can feel the blood boiling in my veins.

Lilium had sent me another message, and I’m still willing on ignoring that it’s attached on my bulletin board. I consider the option that it might be someone else, but then, it can’t be anyone but her. Lilies are like our secret code.

“When are you going to?”

Never. I never considered that I’m supposed to reach out to my childhood friend again until this moment. We don’t have unfinished business, and I’m willing to cut all the ties between us before unfinished business happens.

I look at my mother, the woman who raised me and loved me for the past eight years to the point that she can understand my mind. It’s hard to ignore her, but it’s also easy to annoy her.

I finish my plate, place it in the sink, wash my hands, and turn around to face her.

Fixing my gaze at the white lilies, I walk past Mom, throw the window open, and perch up on the seal.

“Dear God! Zel, what on earth has gotten into you?” she yelps. “Get down!”

I smile then jump this one floor into the garden and start walking away. “Hand me my bag,” I say with my back to her.

“But Zel—”

“Let’s see, what was Lilium’s latest note again—Uh yeah,

Lily of the Valley

Pale as the moon

Something in your eyes

Is tortured

Something is wrong and it’s hurting me.”

It’s pinned on my board next to a photo of us when we were seven, catching Hercules beetles and eating blueberries. Her first note is her pink ribbon, wrapped around my wrist so that Mom won’t see it.

Lilium is making things harder for us both, and I think if she’s not gonna stop, then I hafta force her to. I don’t wanna hurt her. But she’s not giving me a choice.

My mind is set, and I have plenty of flowers to choose from.

Basing things on my own definition of logic, writing a memo to someone you hadn’t exactly seen in ten years shouldn’t be this hard. It’s not a matter of words because I know exactly what to tell Lilium, and how to blow her off without causing major losses. But the problem is that I can’t find something to write on.

I don’t wanna write it on a piece of paper or drop it in her locker or something like that; that sounds kinda plain. I need something exciting. Extraordinary.

Walking in the aisle, I catch a hint of red.

As she brushes past me with a grin shining in her blue-grey eyes, Lilium’s silky red hair tangles between my scarred fingers. And then a white ribbon swishes away.

I hafta stop this before it starts.

I can’t let that happen to her.

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