Chapter Four

I want to stop seeing them, LORD. I think that's the best solution. Make them go away. Thank you. In Jesus' Name I pray, amen.

Ava concluded her prayer before gently closing her Bible. She shrugged away the fact that she couldn't really concentrate on the New Testament passage she just read and none of it actually felt applicable to her situation. Still, she dutifully read the entire chapter, or more like skimmed through it. She shut her eyes and said a quick prayer before getting ready to go to school. Don't wanna be late.

Her daily morning routine set itself into motion. She laid out her uniform on her bed, grabbed a towel and stepped into her own private bathroom. Having woken up early, she was in no rush and took her time taking a warm shower. She put on her uniform and prepped herself up in front of her full length mirror. Checking her reflection, she went over her form. Our uniform does nothing for my figure, she frowned. God, couldn't You have made me taller? she asked, not quite satisfied with her height of 5'4". She began to mull over how her arms were too flabby and her stomach not flat enough. She frowned at the sight of her long, wet and messy highlighted hair. We'll fix that, she thought before sitting in front of her vanity mirror and grabbing her brush and blow dryer. As she styled her hair, she began perusing her face. In her mind, she ticked off what she considered as flaws on her face – the mole beneath her left eye, the pores, the barely noticeable crook on the bridge of her nose, and the fact that her eyebrows needed some trimming. Sometimes, I wish my parents could've given me better genes. A bitter pout formed on her full lips, her eyes downcast, as she wondered how her parents were doing.

Ava's parents were married to their work more than they were married to each other. Her father, Alejandro, or Al, belonged to the board of directors of a major petroleum company and spent more time in first class airplanes than he did at home, considering all the business trips his company often sent him to. Her mother, Clara, on the other hand, was a professional statistics consultant on an extended work assignment to Italy. Ava's primary guardian for the better part of each year was her grandmother, Lola Luz.

A heavy feeling settled over Ava's chest as she recalled how she hadn't spoken to either one of her parents in almost a month. She shrugged it off before self-pity could get to her. At least they remembered to send me the Prada bag and the leather boots I asked for. She thanked them by email, but didn't get a response. Ava heaved a sigh, stood up from her vanity, walked to her full-length mirror and primped in front of it for a couple more minutes before heading out of her room to go grab a quick breakfast.

To her surprise, she found her father, Al, busy making his own breakfast at the kitchen. Based on the objects Ava found littered on top of their granite kitchen counter, she surmised that her father was busy concocting some sort of power drink. He didn't even notice her standing by the door, blinking her eyes several times as if attempting to figure out if it was really him. Always busy with something else, huh, Papa?

"Pa?" Ava asked, finally ascertaining that she wasn't just seeing things. It's really him. She took a few steps forward and laid her bag over the kitchen counter. "When did you get home?"

Her question got drowned out by the noise of the blender, which Al just turned on to finish up his breakfast preparations. Ava frowned and grabbed a banana from the fruit basket and propped herself up on the high wooden stool beside the counter.

It was then that Al recognized her presence. He turned the blender off and gave Ava a half-smile. "I didn't notice you come in," was all he said.

Ava peeled her banana meticulously. "I didn't know you were home."

Al poured the contents of the blender into a tall glass. "I got here last night. I have a quick meeting with a prospective client later today, and I'll be leaving for Manila after the meeting."

"I'm glad to see you," Ava said, a smile appearing on her face - an attempt to lighten the mood. She was beginning to feel like she was in some sort of business meeting.

"Aren't you going to be late for school?" Al asked glancing at the kitchen wall clock. He leaned over the counter, put on his reading glasses, picked up the newspaper and took a sip from his drink.

Ava knew him well enough to know that their conversation was over. Losing her appetite, she abandoned the idea of making herself a sandwich and finished the fruit she picked out. She drank a glass of milk, brushed her teeth and picked up her purse from the kitchen counter before glancing her father's way again. "I'll go kiss Lola goodbye."

"Don't bother," Al said. "She's still asleep."

Ava nodded and motioned to leave and search for their driver.

"Ava…" Al's deep gravelly voice stopped her.

She looked his way expectantly just before she could step out of the door.

Al didn't even look up from the newspaper article he was reading when he said, "You look good."

Though he couldn't even see it, Ava smiled. "Thanks, Pa." As she headed for school that day, Ava knew that she could live on that compliment for weeks.

The sun was rising over the mountains and its rays were beginning to penetrate through the windows of the two-floor townhouse that belonged to the Lee family. Twenty-three-year-old Sophia Lee was sitting in front of the breakfast table, the scent of coffee and cinnamon wafting in the air. Her lips curled into a smile. Mama's making French toast. It reminded her of her younger brother, Ezer, who was on his first year in a 2-year mission exposure trip to Indonesia. French toast was his favorite breakfast. Take care of him, Lord, she whispered, making a mental note to email Ezer later that day.

Leaning against the round dark wood table, Sophia tucked a stray strand of her shoulder-length black hair behind her ear, her brown eyes set on the beautiful view outside the large window that the table was set next to. Laid beside a red mug of steaming hot cocoa on top of the table, her phone vibrated. Sophia picked it up and pursed her lips before reading the message. It was Ava.

Dadz home, ate! Hez leavin l8r tho :( ..but he told me I luk gud! 3 Luv it! Mornin!

Sophia's eyes twinkled at what she read. She was well aware of Ava's family situation and knew how the teenager was desperately trying to earn her parents' approval. She deserves much more than the scraps they're throwing her way. Sophia sighed, her thumb flying over her phone's keypad as she composed a response.

That's gr8, Ava! Of course you look good. Glad 2 know he told u wat is definitely true. Also glad u got 2 see him. Have a blessed day, sweetie.

For some reason, Sophia found that the past few days, every time she thought of Ava, there was a nagging feeling of dread that would come over her. Not knowing exactly what to pray for, she closed her eyes and silently prayed in the Spirit, the heavenly language flowing from the unfathomable mysterious unknowns of her spirit and out of her small, pouty pink lips. She then breathed a deep sigh, sensing the peace settling over her anxious soul. She ended her prayer with, You know what's going on with her, Lord. I entrust her to You.

She opened her eyes just in time to find her mother, Lillian, setting a plate of French toast in front of her. "I miss your brother," the kindly middle-aged woman confessed, a smile forming on her round face, emphasizing the laugh wrinkles bordering her eyes and lips.

"Me too," Sophia nodded, laying her phone over the table and reaching for her mother's ceramic tea pot to pour Lillian a cup of hot chamomile. "Last time we chatted, he was asking for prayers. He won't be able to communicate with us for about a week. Their team is headed for a remote ethnic group. Ezer says that there were places they went to where the forces of darkness are so rampant, you could actually sense it in the atmosphere."

Maternal concern glazed over Lillian's eyes and Sophia could tell that her mother was saying a quiet prayer. Sophia couldn't help but smile at the strength of spirit that she saw in her mother. During the first few months after their father, Jason, died of colon cancer, Lillian's faith remained unwavering, and if it weren't for her, Sophia knew that neither Ezer's nor her relationship with God would be as strong as it was more than two years after their father's death.

After Lillian was done saying a prayer for her son, mother and daughter said grace before they began enjoying their breakfast. Spending breakfast together as a family every morning was a Lee family tradition that Jason insisted on since Sophia and Ezer were kids. It was a tradition that Sophia learned to treasure over the years.

"Kuya Sam is visiting the music studio this morning," Sophia informed her mother before popping a piece of the French toast on her mouth. Sam was the eldest son of their pastor, Joseph dela Cruz. The music studio was the family business left under Sophia's care after her father's death. "He wants to talk about our plans for the youth ministry this school year."

Sophia felt her mother's concerned stare fixed on her. She recently opened up to Lillian how much she resented that Sam was assigned as the leader of the youth ministry at church. "I acknowledge that God has done such a great thing in his life and that his testimony is an incredible inspiration to all, but… It just seems unfair," she explained to her mother a couple of days ago.

"How do you feel about him coming over?" Lillian gently prodded as she took a sip from her tea.

Sophia shrugged. "I've asked God for forgiveness regarding the resentment I feel toward him and Pastor Joseph. I just need to swallow my pride and submit to authority."

"God is teaching you something in this situation, Sophia," Lillian smiled. "Don't miss it."

Sophia sighed. She could sense the battle raging on in her mind. It's so unfair, God. The thought was then quickly followed by God never said that life would be fair.

Matthias Vaughn was the last person on Ava's mind during the ride to school that morning. Leaning her head on the leather seat, she stared out the window with a wistful expression on her brown eyes. Her father came home and he actually told her that she looked good. Ava's face broke into a smile every time she recalled it. With Al, compliments were a precious commodity, so whenever he was giving one away, Ava took it any way she could get it.

Ava played the scene over and over in her mind. With every mental replay, she imagined him saying it with a little more affection in his eyes and a wider hint of a smile on his face. Her heart leaped every time. Any insecurity she harbored over her physical appearance flew right out the window. I'm beautiful, she thought to herself, twirling the soft ends of her stylish hair with one of her fingers. My father told me so.

She was so lost in her gleeful reverie that it didn't even bother her one bit when Racquel messaged her four words: Today is Ditch Day. It was a clear indication that Racquel wasn't showing up to school that morning, and would be on one of her infamous Ditch Days with her older brother, Luke, a college junior. Ditch Days were really just days when Luke and Racquel decide to skip school to wreak some sort of havoc all over the city. It was pointless and sometimes, pathetic, but all the girls in school envied Racquel for having such a fun and cool older brother.

Of course, that day, Ava honestly couldn't have cared less. She simply informed the driver to drop her off at the school parking lot instead of at the waiting shed and once again pictured her dad, taking a sip of his power drink, looking at her and saying, "You look good, Ava."

When Ava got off the van, a clique of girls from her class waved her way. Ava slung her designer bag over her shoulder and waved back, a friendly smile easily forming on her face. "Hey, girls," she greeted.

"Where's Racquel?" Yves, one of the smartest girls in school, asked as she raised her glasses over the bridge of her nose.

"You know…" Ava rolled her eyes before slamming the car door shut and walking toward the girls "…ditch day."

"Ohhh…" The girls nodded with understanding. Racquel was famous in their small private school for her periodic ditch days.

"I wish I had a brother like Kuya Luke," Mariel, Yves' best friend, gushed.

A bunch of I-know-right's and totally's were exclaimed as the girls began talking in unison. The high-pitched chorus of noise often caused by hyper teenage girls began to escalate.

Ava stood and listened for a while, before cutting into their conversation. "Hey girls, I'm gonna go," she said, pointing toward the school.

The girls waved her see-you-later and Ava walked on to the direction of the school. She'd barely taken a few steps forward when Yves called her name. Ava turned around and looked questioningly at the girl. "Yeah?"

"Are you running for school president this year?"

Ava shrugged, "I haven't thought about it yet." She was vice president the last school year.

"You should," Mariel said.

The rest of the girls seemed to agree.

Ava smiled. "I'll think about it," she responded, feeling good about the affirmation her classmates were throwing her way. She proceeded to leave the girls to their daily morning chatter and passed the quadrangle on the way to the school building.

"Ava!" a familiar voice called her name.

She turned her head toward the direction of the voice and found JM walking toward her.

"Hey," Ava waved his way.

JM frowned as he approached. "You didn't respond to my texts last night. What happened to you yesterday?"

"It was just an off day," Ava said, linking arms with her ex-boyfriend as they proceeded to walk forward. "Things are better now." At that point, Ava was confident that her prayers were answered and she would no longer see the demons. Perhaps now I can talk to Matthias like a normal human being. "Where's your famous cousin?"

A momentary look of disappointment appeared on JM's face, but it quickly disappeared. "He said he was gonna get a drink. Took him forever to get back. Must be trying to ward off his fans." He gave her a funny look and Ava couldn't help but crease her brows.

"What?" she asked, her eyes widening.

JM slit his eyes at her, slightly pulling his arm away from her grasp. "Do you want me to get him for you? I'm sure I could pull him aside… unless they've mobbed him." He then let out a rather awkward chuckle.

For some reason, Ava felt like she was being put to the test and she had no idea what the correct answer was. She opened her mouth to respond, but before words could come out, a husky baritone voice interrupted.

"Ava, right?"

She turned her head toward the sound of the voice and the first thing that came to view was the scaly demon perched on Matthias' shoulder.

Whatever preparation Ava felt she had and whatever bliss her father's compliment gave her all flew out the window, because Ava's instinctive reaction was to scream in fright.

Matthias was taking a sip from a bottle of energy drink when he approached. He was so startled by her reaction, he choked on his drink and began coughing on it, the blue liquid spewing out of his mouth, some even coming out of his nostrils.

Ava's face paled, her normally rosy cheeks draining of its color as she clamped her hands over her mouth. She stood frozen in embarrassment for a couple of seconds, oblivious to Matthias' rather uncomfortable predicament, because she could swear at that moment that the creature flying over the young actor was snickering.

"Ava?" JM held her by the elbow.

She turned to him, feeling chills running up her spine, the hairs on her neck rising. The concern and bewilderment on JM's face embarrassed her further. "I…" she gulped and shook her head. She didn't dare look at Matthias again. She simply couldn't bring herself to do it. Not knowing what to do or say, she briskly walked away, leaving the two boys completely taken aback by the rather strange occurrence.

Pulling out his handkerchief from his back pocket and wiping his face clean, Matthias straightened to his full height and quickly glanced at Ava's fleeing form. He then gave his cousin an irritated glare. "What is wrong with her?"

JM shifted his weight from one foot to the other, his eyes never leaving Ava. "I have no idea," he shrugged. "Maybe you should just stay away from her. For some reason, your presence brings out the crazy in her."

Matthias' jaw clenched. "Who is she to you anyway?"

This time, JM looked at him. "She's my ex."

At that, the teen idol's brow raised. "Oh. You still into her?"

JM shook his head. "She's my friend. That's all."

For some reason, Matthias wasn't convinced his cousin was telling the truth.

Just then, the familiar flash of mischief appeared on JM's face. "Did you see how terrified she looked? It was like she saw a monster when she saw you."

Matthias faked a chuckle, recognizing his cousin's attempt to make a joke out of the situation. JM was never one to dwell on drama and was known to steer clear of anything that required talking about feelings and emotions. Thus, Matthias knew that JM wasn't the person to confide in about how shaken and unnerved he was by the girl's reaction. Matthias cast a final look toward the direction that Ava ran off to. This girl is trouble. He made a mental note to stay away from Ava. That particular day, he found it easy to do just that, because for the rest of the day, she stayed as far away from him as possible.

Naomi was comfortably plopped on a large, orange bean bag inside their bungalow's well-lit, carpeted library. It was 7 o'clock in the evening and she was already done with the little homework that was given them on their second day of school, so she figured she could retreat to her favorite place in the sprawling 2000-square-meter bungalow Matthias' career was able to afford them. If there was one thing that she and Matthias had in common, it was their love for books. In fact, the library was the pet project that she and Matthias worked on back when she still actually liked her older brother.

Now, he's just a jerk. A spoiled brat.

The truth was that for the past fifteen minutes, Naomi had been reading the same paragraph of Pride & Prejudice over and over again. She couldn't really concentrate on the Jane Austen classic she was trying to comprehend. Her mind was adrift, lost in a haze of bitterness and contempt. The voice of reason reminded her how irrational her resentment toward her brother was, but strong-willed and stubborn in nature, Naomi brushed the thought away and determinedly stuck with her feelings toward Matthias.

Thus, when the door creaked open , revealing Matthias and JM laughing and goofing around over a joke that Naomi surmised was most likely stupid and not even funny, the teenager was far from happy that her solitude was unceremoniously disturbed. She glared at both her brother and her cousin before huffing, "Do you mind? I'm trying to read here."

Matthias creased his brows at her and his mouth opened as if to say something, but he just shut his mouth. JM gave her a knowing smile and just shook his head, trying to hold his laughter as he made his way toward the desktop computer setup for everyone's use on the library.

If Naomi couldn't concentrate on her book before they came, it got much worse with them around. Great... I was looking forward to some time alone, and now, I can't even… gah! Why does he have to be everywhere? She pretended to be fully focused on the book, but she kept on peering over it to see what they were up to.

JM was booting up the computer. Matthias, on the other hand, made his way toward the shelf of books and began thumbing through the selections.

"Are there any new ones added since I last came here?" Matthias asked.

Yes, Mom and I bought a whole bunch a few weeks before you came, was the answer on Naomi's mind, but what she told him was, "I have no idea."

"Looks like there are some new ones," Matthias observed as he pulled out a book. "I've wanted to read this for some time now."

Her curiosity getting the best of her, Naomi looked up to see what book her brother had selected. She frowned when she realized she hadn't read it yet. It was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"Have you read this?" Matthias asked her, waving the paperback copy in the air.

She just shook her head and went back to pretending to be engrossed in a book she was finding hard to understand.

Matthias shrugged and laid the book on one of the couches, before motioning to walk out of the room.

"Where you going?" JM asked, looking as if he couldn't care less where Matthias went, because he was already quite distracted, checking the notifications on his Facebook account.

"Grabbing a snack," Matthias said, before leaving the room.

He's probably get a salad or something healthy, Naomi rolled her eyes and slightly winced. The Vaughn side of the family wasn't known for quick metabolism. Matthias worked extra hard to keep himself fit, unlike JM, who got his metabolism from the Lupe's and hardly gained an ounce in spite of gobbling practically anything edible in sight. When Matthias returned with an apple, it was only a reminder to Naomi that she needed to lose weight, and once again, she found herself resenting her brother for his self-control.

Matthias was about to walk to the seat where he left the book he picked out earlier only to be distracted when JM started laughing. Curious, Matthias looked over JM's shoulder at the wide-screen monitor. "What's so funny?" he asked, before biting into his apple.

JM slightly looked his way before shrugging. "Ava and Racquel… chat… Imagine Ava on a boat in Burnham Lake, screaming 'This is Sparta!' " JM hadn't even finished the sentence yet and he was already doubling over in laughter.

Even Naomi couldn't stifle a giggle, but she had to slit her eyes with curiosity when she noticed the odd expression on Matthias' face.

"I don't get that girl," her older brother said. He then shook his head and walked toward the couch, picked up his book and began reading.

To say that Naomi was intrigued by her brother's reaction to the mention of Ava was an understatement. Wonder what his problem is… She'd given up trying to introduce herself to Ava, figuring that she'd get to know the girl in due time. This reminded her… "Kuya JM, did you tell Ava?"

"Oh yeah… I'll ask her now…" JM replied, his fingers flying over the keyboard. He was obviously enjoying the Facebook chat with Ava.

"Tell her what?" Matthias asked. There was a tone of irritation in his voice.

"None of your business," Naomi snapped at him, knowing how much of a brat she was being toward her older brother.

"God, Naomi," Matthias shot right back at her, his blue eyes glaring daggers at her. "Enough with the snark already. It's really getting old."

It was evident to Naomi that his temper was rising and her sense of self-preservation was enough to tell her that she didn't want to push him any further. Without another word, she grabbed her book and bolted out of the room. As she stepped outside the library and shut the door behind her, she slightly trembled, remembering the first and last time she saw Matthias lash out in anger. Even as she retreated to her room, she still shuddered at the memory.

She was sitting, cross-legged on top of her bed, her laptop set on the space in front of her. Ava stared at the message on the exclusive chat window with JM. Several messages already popped up from the separate chat conversation the two of them were having with Racquel – most likely a whole lot more updates on what a great ditch day she had and how fun being with her older brother was.

Normally, Ava would've been jealous, but what JM sent her shook her to the core and she didn't even know why. It was such a casual and innocent statement.

My cuzn is completely weirded out by u.

Ava could feel her cheeks flush red at the recollection of what happened earlier that day. More than embarrassment, she felt ashamed about how she handled the whole situation, worried about how it made Matthias feel. God, how do I deal with this? I really thought that I wouldn't see them anymore… The same familiar sense of fear began to cripple her once again and she felt like nothing she read in the Bible would prepare her for what she was up against. That's a lie I know, but it sure feels that way. She frowned, staring at JM's message, trying to decide what to say. She began to compose a response.

Really? I feel so bad about the whole thing. Cud I hav his num? I'd like to apologize…

There was a pause on JM's side. She knew he'd already seen the message based on the Facebook notification on the chat window, so she held her breath as she waited for his reply. It felt like forever before he responded.

..not sure he'd b thrilled about me giving away his num…

All Ava could respond with was: Plz?

There was another long pause on JM's side and he even responded to Racquel's messages before getting back to their private conversation. Ava breathed an audible sigh of relief when he replied with Matthias' digits.

She quickly grabbed her phone and in hopes of washing the guilt she felt away, she sent him a short text message: Hi, Matthias… Ava here… just wanted 2 say sorry bout wat happened yesterday and earlier 2day… So sorry.

Ava spent the rest of the night with her stomach in knots as she waited for a response. There was none. She tried to shove the thoughts away and ease her mind, telling herself that she did her part, but she still felt guilty over the whole thing. She tried to keep up the fun and casual conversation she was having with JM and Racquel, but she couldn't concentrate. Even when she tried to pray, all she could think about was the embarrassing encounter she had with Matthias that morning. She had no idea how many times she checked her phone for a response before she eventually fell asleep.

Checking her phone the next morning, her heart sank when there still wasn't a reply from him. She checked JM's message in hopes of him probably mentioning something about Matthias, but all JM sent her was a rushed good morning and a see-you-later.

Ava heaved a sigh. Shake it off, Ava, she told herself before moving on with her daily morning routine. She'd already managed to get it off her mind when she got to school, which was why she wasn't expecting Matthias to approach her the moment she and Racquel got inside the school premises.

At the sight of him, the first thing she noted was that she could still see the creatures surrounding him. She swallowed hard, and desperately tried to focus on his face. She noted to herself that had it not been for the beasts she was seeing, she probably would've gone weak in the knees at how attractive he was.

Matthias stopped in front of her and leaned over, slitting his eyes at her.

Ava creased her brows, wondering what was on his mind.

He grinned at her and flicked a thumb against her jawline. "You, Ava, owe me a Gatorade." Without another word, he turned and walked away, leaving Ava with a lot to explain to her best friend, who was now staring at her, raven eyes looking as if they were about to pop out of their sockets.

The only thing on Ava's mind as she stood frozen still, watching Matthias confidently stride away, was How on earth am I going to survive this school year?