“… Pardon?” he retracted his hand from her hair.
Ib only gave him a confused tilt of her head as reply.
She was glad, she had said.
His smile was frozen and he couldn’t seem to focus. His mind had stopped working. He was having great trouble comprehending the words that had just left her mouth.
She was glad that she had listened to whom now? He couldn’t put a face to that name, but something told him that it was bad news. An ugly feeling coiled around his chest and his heart steadily took on a faster pace, his calm breathing disrupted.
“Who’s Ray?” he asked tersely, dabbing on a breathless chuckle to smoothen the edges in his tone. Somehow, he was afraid to hear the answer to his question.
Her puzzled expression dissipated and, to his irritation, replaced with a slightly embarrassed look. “It’s the boy I told you about,” with an oblivious smile, she lightheartedly confirmed his fear.
‘Ray.’ Right, he remembered now. The blond kid in front of her school that day… The brat that had so easily taken her away from his embrace. It took everything he had to keep a disgusted frown off his face. The corner of his mouth twitched in annoyance, he wanted nothing but to let his real feelings show. But that wouldn’t do now, would it?
“Oh? You mean that boy that you… like?” Garry almost spat the word out.
She nodded bashfully. “You see… he was… kind. Ray stayed with me when I was alone, and… the nightmares aren’t as scary when I was with him. And he told me to tell you…”
“Uh-huh?” he nodded absentmindedly.
“… My feelings,” she fidgeted, averting her eyes. “He said if I don’t say them clearly, you won’t know.”
What was this? What was she saying? He couldn’t seem to understand. Was she actually telling him that not only was the brat able to quell her hauntings, he was also the reason they were having this moment together? A kid that had randomly popped out of nowhere was the reason for her sudden changes? How she had showed up in his home? How she had clung onto him despite her normally reserved attitude? How she had straightforwardly confessed her thoughts to him? All of that?
No, no. This wasn’t right. He was the one she needed for comfort, the one who taught her new things, the one to draw emotions from her. They were supposed to be back to normal, Ib and him. He was important to her, and she couldn’t stand to be without him, right? Right? What had just happened? The peace of mind he had just established was nowhere to be found, while the unpleasant anxiety from way back engulfed him once more.
He had to calm down. He had better act normal. He had better.
“… Garry?” her concerned eyes looked up at him, and he could only offer a distracted stare back.
Ah… No good.
Garry swallowed with difficulty, his throat parched. He couldn’t think of anything. The face she was making was no good… He was no good. His smiling countenance had probably faded. He had to get himself together. How to smile? His head was killing him.
Get her out…
“You… really like him eh, Ib,” he said in a weak voice.
His head… his heart hurt. It felt like they might break anytime now. He brought a thumb to her cheek, gently brushing the pink curve of her face. Could her small hands feel the beating inside his chest right now? It was so loud that he couldn’t hear anything else. He saw her mouth move to speak, probably calling his name again, but he couldn’t be sure. His jaw worked to answer her, but he just didn’t have anything to reply.
Get her the fuck out!
Glancing at the clock on the television, he managed to force out a smile, “Why isn’t it late already. Let’s get you home, sweetheart.”
Her smile disappeared.
“Honey,” he said in a helpless voice as he straightened his stance in spite of the stubborn pull on the tail of his shirt. “If you don’t let go, I can’t go change.”
“Then don’t change.”
Garry held back a sigh, looking over his shoulder to meet with her determined gaze. He hadn’t thought this to be easy, considering that she hadn’t been too pleased about his announcement to end their time together, and that she had fought – quite fiercely he might add, to stay on his lap, but he really hadn’t accounted for her to persist even after having been plucked from him.
He smiled and patted her head, “Ib, please let go.”
Oh? If he wasn’t mistaken, there was a spark of hesitation in her eyes as she sullenly released his clothes. The realization made him feel a lot better. At least, she still had qualms about expressing herself. At least… she still needed his guidance in opening up. “Good girl,” he cooed endearingly. “Wait for me, okay? It’ll just take a moment.”
The sad look that she was making made him want to give into her, but he knew better. Garry swiftly turned on his heel and headed to his room; the sound of footsteps following him, however, told him that this was far from over. He was doing the right thing here. He just wished she didn’t make this any harder than it already was.
“Garry, please…” she said from behind him. “I don’t want to go back yet.”
He inwardly groaned and decided to simply ignore her. Flipping the bedroom light on, Garry unzipped his jacket and chucked it at the foot of the bed. A brief glance at the door nearly put a mischievous smirk on his face. As expected, Ib was lingering at the doorway, obviously troubled. Yup, she would have to give up – or so he had thought.
“Ib,” Garry drawled. He had his back to her, arms crossed in front of his stomach, ready to pull off his shirt. “Could you close the door for me? I can’t change like this.”
The girl stayed silent. She half wanted to obey him, half just didn’t. If she let him change clothes now, it would mean she agreed to return home – which she didn’t. It had been such a long time, she wanted to stay with him some more. The time they spent together had gone by so fast, she hadn’t realized it had gotten so late already. She would like to say that the clock was lying, but the darkness outside the window would prove her wrong before she could finish that silly thought.
Ib knew she shouldn’t trouble Garry, but a part of her – the part that had doubted him all this time – was screaming for her to stay. Surely if she went home today, they could meet up again tomorrow, or the day after that. However, something just told her that wouldn’t be the case, and she was afraid of hearing rejections after rejections from him again.
She saw his tall frame move as he took in a deep breath, scratching the back of his head in an impatient manner. Wordlessly, he turned to her, hands on his hips.
He was mad. The notion greatly shook her determination. She rarely ever saw him mad, and even if she did, it was never at her. Was she really willing to risk having Garry hate her? But then, this feeling she was getting from him, it was the same as the last time she had come here. He smiled, but it felt like he was pushing her away. She couldn’t shake off the fear of being ignored by him all over again.
Ib knew he would be saying something anytime now. Just as she saw him sucking in a breath, the girl stepped into the room and closed the door behind her.
His jaw dropped. “Why did you do that!” he demanded.
“I closed the door,” she replied, toying with the decorative zippers on her hoodie. “Like you told me to.”
Garry wanted to chide her, but found himself speechless, looking around the room in exasperation. She was so stubborn! Because he had always spoilt her and she had always listened to him, he had forgotten how stubborn she could get. It was this side of her that got even her protective parents to yield and let them hang out so often.
“Don’t be like this, Ib,” he said in a reproachful tone.
“I don’t want to go home tonight,” she muttered with a slight pout. “Can’t I just stay here?”
“No- Wait, what?” his eyes narrowed, not quite believing what he had heard. “… You… didn’t run away from home or anything, right?” it was unlikely, but he asked anyway. The little girl promptly shook her head in return, and he smiled widely. “Then you’re going home. I’m pretty sure it’s past your curfew.”
On the contrary, Ib didn’t have a curfew. There had never been a need for one, considering that she didn’t hang out with people. Garry just liked to believe there was one.
“Please, Garry,” she pleaded with an upward glance. “Let me stay over. It’s been such a long time since I last did.”
“No,” he said firmly, turning his back to her again. The heat was gathering at his face. He really couldn’t win against her like this, that puppy face was unfair, “now let me change.” He hoped she gave up soon.
He could hear her walking up to him, and feel her arms wrapped around his stomach from behind. She had grown taller, he noted. Two years ago, she could barely cling to his waist, and now she hugged it with ease.
She buried her face into his back, gripping at the front of his shirt. “Garry!”
“No,” he remained adamant.
“Garry…” the girl said into his back as she tugged at his clothes, and he felt his resolute mellowing, but did his best not to give in. “Garry~”
He smiled down at her in an overly cheerful manner and could practically see how it elicited a ray of hope inside her. “No,” he mercilessly killed that hope with a tone of finality and averted his eyes right after. Out of the corner of his vision, he saw her pout. That wasn’t a good sign. She was only getting more determined by the seconds.
“Garry, please. Can I stay over tonight?” she snuggled against him, tightening her embrace. “Please? Ma and Pa are going out tonight.”
“Ib,” he let out another sigh. “I said-”
“Please,” she dug her fingers into his baggy shirt, and he could feel her small body tremble against his. “I don’t feel good with the paintings at home… Ma likes them a lot, I can’t tell her to put them away.”
Ah, that was foul play.
Alysha, being a fan of Guertena’s works, had her home decorated with a few copies of the artist’s haunting pieces. He didn’t know how Ib could live with them while he couldn’t even bring himself to have a random painting at his place. He had to thank God that the woman hadn’t managed to win the auction for the real ones. He would never be able to sleep at night if he knew Ib had to stay in the same house as those cursed artworks. Nonetheless, real or not, the paintings still frightened the little girl, and he was actually trying to send her back to that horror? As someone who knew her fears, nay, as the only one who knew, the least he could do for her was give her a place to stay when she needed one. He owed it to her.
Garry turned his torso to drape an arm over her shoulder, patting her head. She glanced up at him, red eyes more hopeful than ever.
He was going to regret this.
“Alright…” he tapped lightly on her soft cheek, a sense of defeat overwhelmed him as her features brightened up. “You can stay… But your parents get the final say. I’ll phone them and if they say no, you’re going home. No arguments, okay?” Ib didn’t reply, not meeting his gaze. “Okay?” he stressed, pinching her cheek with a little more force than normal.
Reluctantly, she nodded and stuck closer to him.
He did regret this.
Garry slowly cut the onions on the chopping board, somewhat in a daze. Unable to ignore the faint sound of running water coming from the bathroom, it was a miracle he hadn’t cut himself along with the tomatoes that now lay in a heap of messy slices.
They hadn’t said no.
Well, technically, her father had, but her mother had quickly dismissed the man. He had planned to have the parents disallow her stay and save himself from this whole ordeal, had bet everything on that, but in the end… Ib got what she wanted. The married couple really was going to a party, and Alysha had been very glad that there was someone to look after Ib for them. Didn’t the woman realize he was the worst guardian she could possibly rely on right now?
He was a pathetic excuse of an adult, unbefitting of being beside Ib. He got all riled up because of a childish crush of a girl who hadn’t even entered her teens yet. From here on out, she would meet many more people. The pretty little thing she was, many would fall in love with her, try to get close to her. Was he going to throw a tantrum every time she decided to reciprocate some brat’s shallow feelings? And then, one day, she would probably find someone who would get even closer to her than he ever could. One day, she would meet that ‘fated person’ that all romance novels preached of. And through everything, he would forever and always be that brother figure who could never truly stay by her side.
He didn’t want to think about it.
Pouring the whipped eggs and vegetables onto the sizzling frying pan, he took a pair of chopsticks to further stir the mixture. The salty smell of fish sauce that emitted from the pan was rather mouthwatering, and, hopefully, would be enough to coax Ib into eating. She preferred omelets with only milk and butter, but because he didn’t trust himself to cook any more than one dish right now, this was his last resort to make sure she at least had vegetables in her meal.
“Ib seemed so down when we told her we wouldn’t be coming back until tomorrow. It’s a very important event so we have no choice,” Alysha had said. “I’m glad she could stay with you. Thank you, Garry. We’re always bothering you.”
It wasn’t a bother, but a privilege. One that he didn’t deserve.
Mother, did you know how much this man wanted to touch your daughter? Father, shouldn’t you know the kind of vulgarities that could go through a man’s head? There was a reason why her frequent sleepovers had suddenly ceased a year ago. Garry didn’t know whether to be glad or dismay that they weren’t aware of his desires.
God, he cared for her so much. His feelings hadn’t changed from before, so what was so different? He wanted to hold her. He wanted to kiss her. He wanted to taste her. He wanted her to look at no one else but him, pay attention to nothing else but him. But there was no way for any of those to happen, was there?
Teach me how to get rid of these feelings.
“Garry, I’m done,” she suddenly called, bringing him back from his musing.
“… Aah,” Garry had grown stiff from surprise, his voice trailing for a moment as he tried to act normally. He had been too occupied to realize that the sound of running water was already gone.
“Are you making omelets?” she sounded very excited, and very close behind him. Even with the eggs emanating its delicious smell from inside the pan that have yet to cool, the smell of fresh shampoo in the air was unmistakable, and he tried his very best to focus on filling the bowl in his hand with freshly cooked rice. He kept his back to her, but could tell that she was drawing near from the sound of her feet tapping along the marble floor. As such, he was able to remain calm as she nudged against his side. Ib clung to his clothes to keep balance and stood on her toes to look into the pan.
“You put stuff into it,” she said accusingly, and he could imagine the pout she was making.
“Sorry,” he chuckled at how adorable she was, finally turning to face her. “Please bear with it to- Hyyeeeeekkkk!” he shrieked, jumping back away from her in alarm and nearly dropping the rice bowl.
His back plastered to the wall, Garry shakily pointed the rice ladle in his hand at the girl, who was still cringing from his hysterical scream. “W-what are you… What are you wearing!”
Ib relaxed her shoulders, eyes opening again, and stared at him in confusion. She looked down at herself with arms slightly parted from her body – the petite body that was swallowed by a shirt clearly several sizes too big for her. The shirt was almost like a dress on her, stretching to mid of her thighs, but the problem was that it wasn’t a dress. It was his shirt! The wide collar was threatening to slip from her narrow shoulders, the V-cut awarding him with a generous view of her slender neck, a hint of collarbones at its base, and even a portion of the smooth, flat skin below that, leaving the randy part in a corner of his mind wanting more. Her chocolate brown hair seemed to take on a reddish hue as it poured over the fern blue of the shirt. The striped long sleeves exceeded the length of her arms, drooping near the end where the outlines of her small hands were indicated by the fabric, emphasizing the tininess that she was. And, oh god, she wasn’t wearing a bottom, not one that he could see anyway. Her milky white thighs peeking from under the shirt, her slim legs twining slightly near her dainty pair of feet…
Suddenly realizing that he was staring – gawking, Garry tore his eyes away from her and lowered the ladle to his side. His heartbeats were going wild.
“I didn’t have anything to change into,” she explained, bringing her covered hands to her mouth, sniffing at the fabric. “This shirt was on the sink and it smelled new so I… Are you mad?” ruby eyes glanced up at him timidly.
“N-no, not at all,” he answered, mindfully returning to the rice cooker to resume what he had been doing. He knew she hated it when the person talking to her didn’t face her properly, but he couldn’t help it. She was so much like a small animal right now, anymore and- Oh lord, his pants were getting tight already. “But why didn’t you call me?” and why didn’t you wear the clothes you just changed out of again, he wanted to add, but he knew she never wore ‘dirty clothes’ again. Kids and their parent-trained hygiene.
“I did. You didn’t answer.”
He really needed to stop spacing out.
“Just eat first, hon. I’m gonna go take a shower now,” he said after setting up the table with the help of his little Ib, although whether her help was more helpful than distracting or not was up for debates. “Don’t wait for me,” he told her and disappeared through the threshold before she could utter a word in return.
Garry headed into his bedroom to fetch another shirt for himself, because the one he had planned to change into was… The vivid image of Ib donning his baggy shirt flashed by his mind, and he inadvertently swallowed. For his own sake, he was going to keep telling himself that she had something beneath that dangerously inviting hem.
Pushing at the bathroom door and turning on the lights, he was greeted by the still steamy air inside. Just minutes ago, Ib was in here… naked. He glanced back at the kitchen doorway to his right and attentively listened. She was going to wait for him, wasn’t she?
… I’m tired.
He stepped inside the bathroom and closed the door behind him. Hopefully, he would finish soon.