“Is that about the sparkly ones?”
Caleb’s head snapped up at the sound of my voice. In his excitement, he nearly threw the book across the room. A bright smile spread across his face, and his eyes lit up. “Benji!”
“No, it’s grandma,” I replied, returning his smile as I sauntered to the edge of the hospital bed. Up close now, I could see the dark shadows beneath my younger brother’s eyes. I tried not to let my concern show on my face. “How are you feeling today?”
Caleb shrugged. “Normal, I guess.” He lowered his head and fiddled with the edge of the paperback book in his lap. “My new normal.”
I knew ‘normal’ meant ‘bad, but I don’t want to bother you about it so I’m pretending everything is okay.’
Caleb coughed, and my heart twisted. On top of the illness, his whole system was weakened from the hospital drugs and atmosphere. My twenty-year-old brother should have been outside, engaging in sports and clubbing and doing whatever it was twenty-year-olds did. Instead, he was cooped up in a sterile and blindingly white room that constantly smelled of rubbing alcohol.
“The doctors say I’m getting a bit better, with the drugs and stuff, but it’s not enough,” Caleb murmured.
My corners of my mouth tugged down, but I forced them back up. “You’re gonna be fine, Cale. I promise.”
But this time Caleb didn’t even bother to return my forced grin. “Benji…” He sighed. “That’s the thing. I don’t think I am.”
I scowled. “You’re not giving up, are you?”
“Not on purpose.” He shot me a half-hearted glare, which quickly withered away. “But it’s - ”
“Do not say hopeless,” I warned.
He frowned now. Without his smile, he looked ten years older. My age. My chest ached again.
“I know you don’t want to hear it, but it’s true,” Caleb said quietly. “We both know that without the surgery, I…”
He trailed off, and for that I was glad. I didn’t want to hear the rest of that sentence, not ever.
I put my hand on his shoulder and squeezed. He winced slightly at the pressure, and I eased up, feeling guilty. I’d forgotten that his body was sensitive and ached nearly all the time, the way it did when your body was fighting off infection.
Then I remembered the reason I came in.
“Hey,” I said, reaching into my messenger bag, “I brought something for you.”
Caleb watched curiously, forgetting his pain for a moment. He gasped as I clumsily pulled out three books, putting two on the bedside table. They were silly adult vampire books, the ones he obsessed over for a reason I could never understand. He grabbed the first one with wide eyes.
“Benji, you know I was looking for these everywhere!” he cried. He flipped through the first few pages, as if making sure they were real.
“I know,” I said. I couldn’t help grinning at his enthusiasm. “I know you don’t like to read stuff off a screen, and since you couldn’t find physical copies before you - ” before you got admitted to the hospital, “- you couldn’t find them, so I decided to buy them for you online.”
Caleb clutched the novel to his chest with a weak, embarrassed laugh. “Dude, you kill me, you know that? You make fun of these books all the time and you go and buy them anyway.”
I shrugged. “Hey, they might be dumb, but they make you happy, right?”
He smiled. “Yeah. Oh my god, look - here, come sit down.”
I sat on the stool next to the bed and leaned in to let Caleb lecture me on whatever this particular book was about.
“So what’s the big deal about this one?” I asked.
He rolled his eyes. “Holy shit, you sound so old. Have you not heard about this series at all? Abyss Blood Saga? It’s a cult hit that only got popular again recently, because it got a TV series. Obviously, the books are better.” He glanced up wistfully. “The third book ended in a cliffhanger, and a new one hasn’t come out since, so the TV series made up a different ending, but… Anyway, that’s why it’s so hard to find.”
“That’s stupid. Why don’t they just put out more in print, then?”
Caleb sighed like I was the one being stupid. “Because the author refused. He said he wasn’t doing it for the money, anyway, but the art of it.”
“Sounds like a pretentious prick,” I said.
Caleb grinned. “Well, he is an author. You know how they are.”
I shot him a wry grin. “Are all the teenage girls obsessed with it?”
“Shut up, Benji.” He weakly shouldered me and I pretended to get knocked back before rolling back around. “Anyway, just because teenage girls like it doesn’t mean it’s bad. You are such a misogynist.”
I groaned. “Caleb, it’s about vampires, for god’s sake. They’re not even real. How good can it be?”
“Why do they have to be real?” Caleb countered. “That’s why it’s called fiction, duh. And by the way, when was the last time you actually read a book again? Like, high school?”
“Enough about me,” I said, waving my hand. “Tell me about Dracula or whatever.”
Caleb’s eyes sparkled. “Okay, first of all, the main guy is not called Dracula. His name is Bartholomew ‘Mew’ Woodcourt. And the other guy - ”
“Wait,” I interrupted, genuinely surprised. “The other guy? It’s a gay book?”
“Yes!” Caleb cried in exasperation. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Mew is the alpha. The other guy, the omega, his name is Hayden Foster.”
I scrunched up my brow. “Weird. That’s our last name, and we’re both omegas. Maybe he’s our long-lost brother or something.” I fake gasped. “Maybe we should sue.”
Caleb rolled his eyes again. “Anyway, yeah, it’s a gay romance. They apparently changed a lot in the TV series, so I’m excited to read the original source.”
My heart felt light and airy. It overjoyed me to see Caleb so happy with something as simple as a pile of books.
Caleb hesitated before asking, “Were they expensive?”
I decided not to tell him the whole truth, about how the only physical copies available online were hardcover, and that only some obscure store with ridiculous shipping rates sold them, and instead said, “Nah.”
Caleb didn’t seem convinced. “Benji…”
I crossed my arms. “Yes, but they were worth it.”
Suddenly Caleb didn’t look as thrilled about the books anymore. He set it down in his lap. The air turned colder.
“You know we can’t afford anything expensive,” Caleb mumbled.
“They weren’t that expensive,” I insisted, lying through my teeth. But it didn’t matter. Caleb saw through my lie and it ruined his mood - the one thing I’d worked so hard to try and improve. As usual, I ended up just making things worse.
“Caleb, it was worth it. Listen, I just put it on my credit card,” I told him. “A little debt now to make you happy and keep you occupied isn’t so bad.”
“I don’t want you to take on debt for me,” Caleb argued. “It’s bad enough the surgery is so expensive that we can’t afford it.”
There it was. The words crushed me every time. My stomach turned to lead, sinking dreadfully. My grip on the edge of the hospital bed railing tightened.
Caleb looked away. “Sorry. I’m just trying to be realistic.”
Cold silence settled on the room, broken up by the sounds of miscellaneous machines beeping. A wave of anger hit me and I wanted to rip Caleb away from the drugs and machines and everything in this stupid hospital that did nothing but keep him alive with no cure in sight unless we dropped a huge sum of money that we couldn’t afford.
“Benji?” Caleb asked in concern. He pointed to the bed frame, which I was close to ripping off.
“Sorry,” I muttered, withdrawing my hands.
Caleb tried to grin. “That’d just be one more expense, if you broke that.”
I wasn’t in the mood to laugh. “I’ll get another job.”
“I said I’ll get another job,” I repeated. “Since obviously working at the cash register isn’t enough.”
Caleb frowned. “Benji, you already work full-time. You can’t take another job, you’ll burn out.”
“Lots of people have two jobs,” I argued.
“Yes, and they get sick from stress.”
“Not as sick as you.”
Caleb groaned, getting angry now. “You can’t get sick because of me! Don’t be stupid!.”
I balled my fists at my side. “I’m not being stupid, I’m just doing what I have to to pay for your surgery.”
Tears of frustration welled in Caleb’s eyes. “Benji, I swear to god. We already lost mom and dad. Don’t do this to yourself.”
“Do what?” I said. “I’m just getting another job, Caleb, it’s not like I’m doing something insane.”
A dark shadow appeared on Caleb’s face. “Whatever. It doesn’t matter anyway.”
“What?” I said, almost snarling.
His eyes flitted up to mine. The light in them had been snuffed out. “I said, it doesn’t matter. No matter what you do, how many jobs you have… It won’t be enough for the surgery. And don’t try to deny it, Benji.”
Rage boiled in my gut - rage at Caleb for giving up so easily, rage at the doctors for not simply fixing him, rage at the world that had done this to my brother. It must have been visible on my face because Caleb’s brow furrowed.
“I have to go,” I muttered, about to turn on my heel and leave. “The faster I can earn that money, the better.”
Caleb’s mouth tightened. “You won’t be able to do it. It’s an insane amount of money.”
I finally snapped, throwing my hands in the air. “So am I not supposed to even try? Am I just supposed to watch you wither away in that fucking bed? I can’t do that, okay, Caleb? You’re all I have left!”
Hurt flashed on my brother’s face, and I was consumed by guilt. I wasn’t helping him at all - just hurting him even more.
A nurse strode into the room, likely because of the sudden commotion. “Is everything okay here?”
“Fine,” I muttered. “I was just leaving.”
“Benji!” Caleb called, but I didn’t look back. I muttered a curt apology to the nurse as I moved past her and stormed into the hall. Hot tears stung my eyes. I hated fighting with Caleb, couldn’t stand it, especially in the state he was in right now, but my frustration had reached a breaking point. He was getting worse every day, and nothing was helping. The doctors could only do what they could to stave off his suffering - without the money for surgery, it was hopeless.
I wandered out of the hospital in a daze. My vision was still blurred by tears, which I wiped roughly on my sleeve.
Outside, the winter sun had already descended. Flurries and brutal winds hit me in the face as I stormed out of the hospital to the street. The surrounding darkness seemed to hit home how desperate my situation really was, like a crushing weight in my soul.
Where was I going to find a job that would make me enough money to help Caleb? As much as I hated to admit it, he was right - I already worked a full-time job, and working another would only exhaust me further. But what other choice did I have? I wasn’t going to watch my younger brother die just because I didn’t want to take on more stress in my life.
He needs me, I told myself. I’m the only person he has left to take care of him.
Since I couldn’t afford a car, I had to take the bus all the way home. I slumped into the seat within the bus shelter, thankful at least for the walls protecting me from the elements.
“What’s that smell?”
The sudden crass voice made me wince. A group of men approached the bus shelter - tall, muscular underneath their coats. The bitter cold made it harder to smell, but their scent was definitely alpha. Instinctively, I held my breath. As a lone omega, being around a group of alphas always made me uncomfortable.
I shuffled into the corner of the seat and the shelter wall, and stared at the ground. I prayed the bus would come faster so I could melt into a crowd and get away from them.
Unfortunately, I had no such luck. The alphas huddled into the shelter, exclaiming about the cold, but watching me from the corners of their eyes. I suspected they weren’t cold at all - just wanted an opportunity to get closer to me.
Yeah, right, I thought bitterly. No alpha had been interested in me, specifically. Not my personality or appearance. Not since my ex, Daniel. All he and other alphas cared about was my omega status. I wasn’t in one now, thank god, but an omega in a heat was like a drug for alphas. I wasn’t on heat suppressant pills - I couldn’t afford them - but generally, I had to take time off work until it passed. That time off work wasn't something I couldn’t afford right now, either.
To my discomfort, one of the alphas pressed closer to me.
“Man, the bus is late, huh?” he said with a grin.
I was in no mood to make small talk. I nodded, not looking at him.
“Wow, touchy,” he muttered. He turned to his friends and sighed. “Guess I’m too ugly for omegas to talk to, huh?”
One of them quirked a brow at him, then glanced at me with disdain. “Shut up, dude, you’re too good for that fat omega.”
I flinched and my stomach flipped upside-down. That word felt like a slap to the face. I curled up tighter in my corner, desperately wishing the bus would arrive already.
But it wasn’t enough. The alphas closed in. Now all their eyes were on me, scrutinizing my body. Even though they weren’t actually touching me, it felt like a massive invasion of privacy. I wanted to shut my eyes and escape to the darkness of my mind, but I didn’t dare look away now.
“What’s wrong, fatass?” another alpha jeered. “You got a problem with my friend? Think you’re better than him? Well, you’re not. Just look at you!”
I winced at the cutting words. Could I stand to lose a few pounds? Sure, if I wanted to. Was it any of their goddamn business? Hell no.
Still, that didn’t make the sting of their words hurt any less - especially with the fear now gripping me.
The alphas moved in like a pack of wolves, inches away from me. I barely had room to breathe. My heart thumped rapidly against my chest. My fingers dug into my knees hard enough to scrape the skin beneath my jeans, as if hurting myself would make the fear dissipate. But it didn’t.
“Aww, did we upset you?” one asked in a mock sympathetic voice.
To my horror, he reached down and grabbed my chin, forcing me to look up at them. My eyes widened with fear.
“His face is pretty ugly, too,” another one added with a cruel laugh.
Defiant anger rose up within me, but it was tainted by my anxiety and terror. I couldn’t stand up to these alphas. I couldn’t…
“Maybe we should make it even uglier,” the one still grasping my face muttered. “Give him a scar or something. It’s not like anyone would even notice.”
A flash of panic made me jerk backwards, out of his grip. “Stop!”
They laughed. The callous sound reverberated in the bus shelter.
“Is the little omega scared?”
“He’s not little. More like the big omega.”
My temper finally snapped, overpowering my fear. I shot up and shouted, “Get away from me!”
The alpha closest to me didn’t even hesitate. As soon as I stood, he shoved me back. My knees caught on the shelter seat, and my upper body crashed into the bus shelter wall. The sudden force and awkward position made me accidentally bite down hard on my tongue. I let out a muffled yelp of pain. My teeth tore the flesh. Blood instantly began welling in my mouth.
“Shit,” I whimpered as the blood trickled from the corner of my lips.
The sight of the blood didn’t make the alphas back off. Instead, they seemed even more bloodthirsty - like their initial excitement at the idea of hurting me had escalated.
I was trapped, and surrounded. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me now.
All my defiance melted away, and I succumbed to fear.