She froze in the doorway, her hand still on the doorknob. Her uncle's arms were crossed over his chest and a scowl was etched on his face. He narrowed his eyes when she looked at him, causing her to immediately lower her gaze. She saw his feet move towards her. She hadn't even fully shut the door yet.
"I got a call from your school today," he growled, stalking towards her. She took a step backward instinctively, watching his feet. He was angry. Making eye contact was not wise. Whatever they had called him about, he was not pleased.
His large arm shot past her head, missing it by inches, and slammed the door shut. Her tight grip on the doorknob caused her to be pulled backward. Her feet fumbled to keep her upright. She thudded heavily against the door, sending waves of pain down her back, knocking the air out of her lungs. She quickly regained her footing, released the doorknob, and drew in a shuddered breath. Her eyes darted from his face, to under his outstretched arm. She could try to make a run for it if she went now.
He moved even closer to her, his dark eyes almost indistinguishable from the black pupils. His expression warned her against attempting to flee. His hand was pressed flat against the door, just inches from her head. He looked down at her, his frame blocking her vision of the rest of the house. Her escape route was disappearing. Another step forward and her chance to run had passed. He towered over her, seething. She decided the best course of action was to humor him.
“About what?” she asked in the most innocent voice she could muster. Now was not the time to provoke him, not when he had her cornered. He bent his neck and leaned down until his face was too close to hers. She could smell his breath, the fumes making her turn her head in disgust. His silver hair was disheveled, a few strands laying over the shaved sides of his head. He had already been drinking.
“Like you don't know?” he demanded. She had been told that her tardiness was going to be excused this time, so she wasn't sure what the call had been about. She shook her head, her expression as neutral as she could manage. The panic building in her chest was hard to contain, but she had years of practice. “Apparently someone there thinks you aren't being challenged enough and wants to move you up a grade,” he scoffed, pulling away from her. Still standing too close, he straightened himself and crossed his arms, waiting for her response.
“No one told me about it,” she replied honestly, “I wasn't aware.”
“You were told to not be bothersome, you parasite,” he said through his gritted teeth, “I don't have time to deal with annoying calls from your school, regardless of the reasons. You are already a grade ahead for your age. Stop showing off and just be a normal kid!” His yell rang through the silent house.
“I haven't done anything to draw attention to myself,” she said defensively, “I just do my work. Not having a social life means all of my free time goes to studying.” A disgusting grin stretched across his bearded face. She immediately regretted saying anything.
“You have too much free time?” he laughed, “Then I will gladly give you something to do! You can clean the house, top to bottom. Now!” He stomped off, laughing to himself. He plopped down on the couch in the living room, making it groan under his weight. “And bring me a beer!” he demanded without even looking in her direction. She rolled her eyes and made her way to the kitchen.
She opened the fridge, grabbed a bottle, and brought it to him, holding it out for him to take. He snatched it from her hand and lined it up to the end table's edge, then hit the bottle with his meaty palm, causing the cap to fly off. Instinctively, she reached out a hand and caught it mid-air. Her uncle looked up at her hand and glared.
“Get to cleaning,” he grumbled, unimpressed. She placed the cap on the table, wondering if he had wanted her to have to pick it up from the floor. His favorite hobbies seemed to include hitting her, inconveniencing her, humiliating her, and yelling at her.
'He must be having a great afternoon so far,' she thought bitterly. She turned away, hearing the television click on behind her, and went to the basement to drop off her bag and change. She put her school clothes directly into the washing machine that was on the opposite wall of her makeshift bedroom.
She pulled on some orange and white bleach-stained leggings with worn-out holes in the knees, then pulled her hair up into a ponytail. She dug out a matching t-shirt, black and stained with a couple of holes, and slipped it on as well. She tied the excess fabric of the loose top into a knot and tucked it under itself. The outfit was meant for functionality, to let her work unhindered.
The leggings came up past her navel and the knotted shirt was only about half an inch above them. The small gap between her shirt and pants showed a very narrow midsection. As if on cue, her stomach growled. She sighed, grabbed some cleaning supplies off the shelves beside the washing machine, and made her way upstairs.
Several hours later, she had scrubbed his bathroom spotless, dusted and vacuumed his bedroom and the two spare rooms, swept, mopped, washed all of the dishes he had let pile up in the kitchen, and managed to clean around him as she finished off in the living room. The windows had been cleaned, all of his dirty laundry had been washed, dried, folded, and put away. There wasn't a spot left in the entire house she had not cleaned except the couch that he was still sprawled across. She gathered all the supplies and started to go back to the basement to put everything away.
“Hold it,” he said. She froze, took a deep breath, and then slowly turned back around to face him. He was already on his feet, muscular arms crossed over his broad chest. The man was built like a linebacker. “Where do you think you're going?” he demanded. She looked at him perplexed.
“To put this stuff up and go do my homework,” she answered shortly. He scowled at her.
“Forgetting something?” he asked. He was annoyed. She had to guess correctly on the first try. It would be hard to miss a swing while holding an armful of chemicals and cleaning tools. Her body was already aching. Getting hit right now was less than appealing.
“Are you hungry?” she guessed. He jerked his chin towards the clock on the wall. It read 7:48. He glowered down at her.
“You took forever and now I'm starving,” he grumbled, “Hurry up and fix dinner.” He glared at her. Being careful not to anger him further, she bowed her head ever so slightly and then went to deposit her load at the doorway of the basement. She went back into the kitchen and pulled the fridge door open.
The couch in the living room creaked, letting her know that he had sunk back down onto it. The quickest thing to make would be the leftovers she had been saving for herself. She sighed heavily, grabbed the container, and placed it in the microwave. Even if it meant going hungry, she preferred to just hurry and get back to her room. Taking the time to cook a new meal just wasn't worth it.
She got a clean plate out and set it on the counter. When the timer was almost up, she stopped the microwave, preventing it from beeping. It only took a minute to arrange the food on the plate to look as though it was a freshly cooked meal. Her uncle would never know the difference.
Roasted steak and potatoes with a side of garlic green beans sat beautifully on the large dish. The smell made her mouth water. She tried to ignore her stomach pangs and dug another beer from the fridge. She grabbed the plate, set a fork on top of it, and carried the meal over to her uncle, setting it down on the coffee table in front of him.
Her uncle looked away from the sports channel he had been watching to stare at her. She held the beer out to him and waited for him to take it. He grabbed it, wrapping his thick hand around hers and the bottle, then pulled her towards him. She managed to pull her hand away and stop before ramming into his chest. He guffawed, amused at almost causing her to fall, then dismissed her with a wave of his empty hand.
“Get out of my sight before you ruin my appetite, Brat,” he chuckled. She turned on her heel and went through the kitchen to the basement door, stooping to gather up the cleaning supplies. She managed to balance them in one arm to shut the door behind her, then carefully made her way down the stairs. The light was still on from the night before. She had forgotten to switch it off before falling asleep and had not had the time to do it that morning.
Dumping her arsenal of chemicals, brushes, rags, and sponges in a corner of the room, she made her way to the bathroom. There was a standing shower, a sink, and a toilet all crammed into a space that was probably designed to be a supply closet. She stripped off her clothes and stepped into a steamy hot shower. Scrubbing all of the chemicals and grime off of her took longer than she wanted, but she enjoyed the hot water on her tense muscles.
When the water started to turn cold, she shut it off and stepped out of the shower. She wrapped a towel around herself and left the bathroom, making her way over to her dresser. Movement caught her eye and she looked upwards to the small window that was above her bed. She saw a pair of glowing yellow eyes blink at her, then disappear.
'Just a cat,' she thought. She dried off and got dressed, then turned off the light. Her old mattress was suddenly not so uncomfortable. She was worn out, physically and mentally. Anything horizontal would probably feel welcoming to her. Before slipping into unconsciousness, she remembered to switch her alarm on.
She slept dreamlessly, enveloped in deep, peaceful darkness. Abrasive beeping jolted her awake all too soon. She reached out in the dark and hit the alarm clock, silencing the noise. The red numbers glowed, showing her it was 5:30 am. Zayd's face flashed through her mind and she remembered that she had agreed to meet him outside by 6 o'clock.
She sat up and sighed, stretching her arms above her head. Her muscles were sore from the day before, but it was tolerable. Body fatigue was preferable compared to another bump or bruise. She touched her scalp and found the knot her uncle had given her was almost gone.
She stood, slipping off of the mattress and onto the cold cement floor. She made her way to the bathroom to do her morning business, brushed her teeth, and then scooped up the dirty clothes that she had left lying on the floor. She threw them into the hamper she kept next to the washing machine and then dug around in her dresser for something to wear.
Her options were limited. Her uncle gave her a small budget with which she was meant to buy clothes and other necessities. Most of her things came from thrift shops or yard sales. This meant most of her clothes were old and didn't fit her well. Usually, throwing on whatever she first touched would suffice. However, she found herself trying to find something nice to wear.
She had one pair of faded grey jeans that fit her snugly. She slid into them. They showed her ankles some, but that was fine. At least they were not torn or covered in stains. She rolled the cuffs of the legs up until they hugged her calves, turning them into capris. She only had a couple of tops that fit her properly. The black blouse she chose had short sleeves with a pointed U-neck that showed a hint of her cleavage and the chain of the necklace she always wore. The shirt cinched under her breasts, then flowed down to her hips in ruffles.
The soft cotton fabric only touched her skin in a few places, making her feel a little too exposed. She studied herself in the mirror, trying to decide if she should wear it or not. She had never worn it to school before, even though she thought it looked cute. The goal, ever since her uncle adopted her, had been to not draw attention to herself. The shirt stopped right above the waistband of her jeans. Her midsection was covered, so the outfit didn't violate the school's dress code. It only felt as though the shirt stopped at her ribs and left her stomach was uncovered.
A glance at the clock told her she had fifteen minutes left to get outside. She grabbed her hairbrush and ran it through her long, dark hair. Going to bed with it wet had left it tangled. After she had finished, her hair laid across her shoulders in soft waves. Usually, it was fairly straight. She didn't have time to fix it. Rolling her eyes at her reflection, not sure why exactly she even cared about how she looked, she grabbed her bag and threaded her arms through the straps. Thanks to her uncle, she would have to do her homework on the bus.
She took the stairs two at a time and hurried out the front door, locking it behind her. She pocketed the key and turned to see Zayd waiting at the end of her driveway. Her hands ran over her blouse, making sure her blouse was still long enough to cover her, before walking down to meet him. He wore jeans, a jacket, and the messenger bag he had carried the day before. His mouth turned up into a crooked grin, his amber eyes looking her up and down before settling on her face.
“Good morning,” he greeted her. She had to cover a yawn with her hand. She nodded.
“It's definitely morning,” she agreed. He furrowed his eyebrows.
“Did you not get enough sleep?” he asked. His voice was concerned. She gave him a one-armed shrug.
“I guess,” she answered. He began to walk down the road to their bus stop, still looking at her. She focused on keeping up with his long strides.
“What happened?” he asked. She let out a soft sigh. He wasn't going to drop it.
“My uncle got pissed that the school called him and decided that I had too much free time, so he made me clean the entire house,” she explained. She was too tired to come up with a lie. Aside from that, something made her feel like she could trust him.
His hand grabbed her arm and he spun her to face him. She had to crane her neck to look up at his face. He was standing so close that her chest was almost touching his torso. Heat flooded her face.
“He did what?” Zayd demanded. His golden eyes darkened a shade. He seemed angry for some reason. She looked at his expression, confused.
“He made me clean the house,” she repeated. It was annoying, but it wasn't something to be mad about. He closed his eyes and sighed deeply.
“Because of a phone call?” he asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. She nodded.
“Yeah,” she answered out loud, realizing he couldn't see her gesture, “Someone at the school tried to get him to let me advance a grade and he said I needed to stop showing off because I was already a grade up from where I'm supposed to be.” His eyes slowly opened and he let his hand drop from his face. His anger had been replaced by some mixture of shock and annoyance. Zayd released her arm and they started walking again.
“What grade are you in?” he asked.
“I'm a sophomore,” she answered, “I'm supposed to be a freshman. I'm 14. I skipped kindergarten when I was in elementary school.”
“Do you want to advance a grade?” he questioned her.
“I don't know,” she shrugged.
“Why not?” he asked.
“If I stay in 10th grade, I can easily do my assignments, but apparently that means I am showing off. I don't want to keep upsetting my uncle. If I move to 11th, especially since it's already halfway through the year, I'll have to work to catch up and the work would be harder. That means I would have less energy to deal with crap at home. I'm not sure which is worse.” Her explanation seemed to upset him.
“You should advance,” he stated firmly.
“That sounds like a lot of effort,” she complained. Dealing with her uncle was already more than she could handle. Adding difficult assignments to the mix did not seem like a wise choice.
“I'll make sure it's not,” he grinned. He seemed overly confident for someone that couldn't do anything to change her circumstances. They reached the stop sign and she shrugged. He didn't understand her dilemma, which was fine. She hadn't expected him to. He didn't know her. The bus pulled up and he let her climb up the steps first. She took the seat at the back of the bus, passing all of the other empty spaces. They were the first stop on the route. She would have a little time to finish up her homework.
She pulled out a binder and pen, then settled her bag on the seat beside her, propping her knees up on the back of the seat in front of her and used her lap as a desk. Zayd slid in next to her, placing her bag next to his between his feet. She looked up at him curiously. There were no other occupied seats. Why was he choosing to sit next to her again? She ignored him and focused on filling in the answers to her math sheet. Her pen scrawled across the paper quickly. She had other assignments to finish and had to hurry.
He peered over at her binder and saw the math equations she was working on. He lifted an eyebrow at her.
“What?” she asked, snapping at him defensively. Her pen hovered over the paper. She resisted the urge to lean over and hug her arms around her binder to hide her work.
“Nothing,” he said with a laugh, “Just, now I understand why someone wants to let you skip a grade. This is easy for you.” He smirked at her. She shot him a glare and went back to the paper, scribbling out the answers even faster. If she hurried, maybe he would keep his comments to himself.
He leaned back in the seat and rested his hands behind his head. She noticed each time he glanced down at her but ignored him. She moved on to the history and science papers she had to do and then finished the essay she had started in class yesterday. When she was finally finished with everything, she snapped the binder shut and reached for her bag.
She froze, realizing she had almost reached between his legs. Instead, she bent down and reached under him, grabbing her bag and pulling it towards her. She slipped the binder into her bag and zipped it shut, crossing her arms over her chest and staring out the window.
“Lilyan?” he asked. She flinched ever so slightly but turned to look at him. “Sorry if I upset you,” he murmured. She shrugged. He hadn't done anything wrong. Half of the bus was full now. They still had a while before they would get to their school. She kept her knees up and her arms crossed but looked up at her new friend. Were all friends this odd or was it just him? Knowing her luck, it was probably the latter.
“So, what grade are you in?” she asked him. He smirked.
“Junior year,” he answered, “So, you'll be joining me soon.” He seemed fairly confident in that. Lilyan still had not decided to advance yet. Her uncle would have to sign off on it. She didn't see that happening. It was different when her grandmother had been in charge of her education. She had wanted Lilyan to excel. Her uncle wanted her to stop burdening him.
Zayd's fingers brushed across her forehead, pulling her out of her thoughts. She looked up at him and stared questioningly.
“You're going to get wrinkles if you keep doing that,” he joked. He let his hand rest on his lap, joining the other one. She looked up from his slender fingers to his face.
“Doing what?” she questioned him.
“Thinking too hard,” he replied, “Sometimes you have to just do things. You can't overthink every little thing, Lilyan.” She scoffed, a small smile forming on her lips. He had no clue how counterproductive being impulsive would be to her. She simply shook her head.