Xander’s breaths came short and ragged, each exhale searing the pain in his lungs. He slumped against the tree, choking at the taste of blood bubbling up his throat and dribbling down the corners of his mouth. He leaned forward unsteadily, hand pressed over his torso.
He could smell his flesh. Corroded and burnt. Sticky blood filled with pus, uneven pink and white patches covering the lot of his torso, legs, arms, neck- the wolfsbane had completely burned and dissolved through his skin. Flesh was visible.
His heart pulsed, blood pumping through exposed veins and trailing along his bare legs.
His clothes had been discarded somewhere along the path.
He could not remember leaving the house.
Distorted visions of flashing lights, laughter, the concentrated smell of acid, his skin on fire. He did not pass out, the moment had been excruciating so much so his body could hardly succumb to darkness. Then hands. Lots of hands touching him. Murmurs of ‘animal boy’ and awes at the sight of his skin melting under the acid. More flashes. Then something heavy had been placed around his neck.
He tried to claw at it. His fingers had been burned too. Xander stumbled from the yanking, eyes blurring in tears that filled yet could not spill. He was being guided down the steps at a hurried pace. He tripped and fell, rolling the rest of the way. The landing as brutal, skin against carpet. The friction ripping off more. More pulling. Outside where it was cold, barely offering relief to the agony that had him slipping in and out of consciousness. Someone pushed him onto the wet ground. His clothes flattered around him.
“Go howl at the moon, rogue.” Another spat on his bare back.
Xander knew he was going to die.
He felt it while lying on the prickling grass.
In the blood that soaked the earth below. Shallow breaths barely visible as it heart struggled to beat. Somehow, his legs found footing and his hands rose in the autistic darkness, groping from support and anything and everything. Prickly bark- tree. He stumbled back and forth, lumbering like a blind beast with shackles on his ankles. The collar he wore weighted heavily on his youthful shoulders, the chain dragging noisily behind him. It was the noise that kept him from slipping into unconsciousness.
Hours passed as he crawled through the dark forest, stones and gravel grating his skin. Acid. It was all he could smell. The pain throbbed in his guts, deep and warm. It felt as though someone was slicing the skin from his body with a double edged knife, squeezing his organs. He slumped against a tree when it grew excruciating, far too plausible to move and shut his eyes, breathing slow and deep until it passed.
When it waned, he could move again, three steps or so and when it returned, he stilled and repeated the breathing action.
He wanted to cry. The pain too excruciating to bear, a numbness blinding his senses until all that was left on his path was blackness.
Eventually, Salem’s house came to view and Xander almost choked on the relief that suffocated him.
“Salem,” he called out weakly. No response. Xander wheezed, he could feel his body shutting down, organs pitching weakly, heart barely a flatter within the walls of his rib cage.
“Salem.” Xander tried again, dropping to his knees, hand braced on the earth.
He could go no further.
The nausea clawed at his throat, and he tried to force down the bile, but it was too late. Chunks of food he had eaten back at the party mixed with foams of beer spewed out of his coughing, choking mouth. His stomach kept contracting violently and forcing everything up and out. His face paled significantly and dripped bile, sweat and something salty- tears.
The pungent stench invaded his nostrils and he heaved empty air. The struggle to breath was almost a battle. Weakened, he lurched onto the ground and lay in his own murk of shame, it sloshed on his bare torso- the bile burning his already scalded skin.
His vision blurred over, trees seemingly a reflection on water’s surface. He could feel it. Darkness creeping from the corners of his vision, stillness in the pain, his heart thumped low and dull. In the distance, he thought he heard noises of some sort, dulled out as his body sunk into the depths of weakness- primal instinct to escape. The footsteps were growing louder, the ground beating heavily beneath him.
And in his last dying thoughts, Xander called out one last weak time.
The nightmares came in shards of broken memories. Clawing at him from the corners of his bedroom, shuddering him through portals of traumatic events he had sworn to never think about. The smell of burning smoke, the house on fire. It felt real as the scorching heat licked his skin- he could hear them over the roaring noise.
His mother’s voice calling him.
Xander was running through the hallway, the scent of petroleum strong and concentrated. It made him dizzy, it distorted his senses. He struggled to keep up with the fuming smell, his head throbbed.
She was still calling to him somewhere in the house. His small brother cradled in her arms, shielded from death’s inevitable breath of hell.
Everything had burst into flames. The stairs licked by hellfire. He could not reach them upstairs. He could not save. He had been foolish to leave the house, he had-
“Xander,” a voice was calling to him from the webs of his nightmares. Something cool placed against the shine of his damp forehead. “Xander.”
He was crying even when he woke. Quiet sobs that shook his shoulders. Xander’s eyes opened to the familiar ceiling of his room unable to grapple the wretched moan that coursed through him.
“Hey,” a dainty hand pressed on his cheek, another one. Thumbs brushing his tears. The warmth and tenderness so unbearable it shredded the muscles of his heart as it struggled to beat. “It’s fine, you’re fine.” A voice soothing and calm, anchoring him when he felt as though he might drown in the infinite sorrow. “You’re fine.” She repeated.
He fell asleep again to the voice, the weight of exhaustion and healing dragging him back beneath its depths.
he wasn’t fine.
it wasn’t fine.
The nightmares did not spare him.
On the course of eight days, Xander drifted in and out of consciousness. His body had lagged in healing, the wolfs bane highly acidic it broke his immune system almost immediately. The doctor that floated in his room could only recommend one method; wait and see. There was not much to do once a wolf had been burnt by acid. In his case, five liters of it. Dressing and undressing wounds. Cleaning puss and blood. Rolling him onto his side every five hours to prevent blisters from forming on the side he lay on.
When he woke in the middle of the night; his body would ache intolerably, cheeks burning with the flush of fever. Each time he cried for her weakly, but there was no strength in his voice, just a whisper. His breath quivered in short, quick gasps every time he inhaled, his lungs having no choice but to painfully and rigidly take in the chilled air around him.
he will be scarred for life, the voice said. Soft grunt and curses from Salem. Another girl’s soothing voice, calming him.
Even beneath the light cotton sheet, he would radiate heat like a brick right out of the oven. He ate nothing when awake but the most watery of soups, so diminished was his appetite. When he coughed, it rattled and barked well through walls and into the still late winter air.
The fever came with hallucinations. His mother, his brother, his father.
He could not seem to stop shaking in frequencies of shivers. Sometimes, it was rough, and other times he could manage, but every time he’d get close to sleep, a new spell of violent shaking would force him awake.
The unfamiliar hand was a constant comfort in his hysterical driven mind. “You’ll get better,” she whispered, “I’m right here.”
please stay, he wished to beg, but the words did not leave as darkness plunged him beneath.
On the tenth day, he woke up.
The room was damp and musty, windows clamped shut leaving him in what felt like an incinerator. His mouth was parched, throat brackish and raw from disuse. Xander struggled to blink as the ceiling took shape. His head lolled to the side, catching glimpse of a figure huddled on a chair beside him, blanket draped over her shoulders.
His lips parted, wanting to speak- air could only escape him.
Xander’s eyes lifted to the jug of water set on the nightstand, so cool was it, condensation had formed on the glass. His heart squeezed at the sight of it, desperation in the mild shifting of his body. He tried to move his hand, then stilled at the sight of it completely bandaged from his wrist up to his shoulder.
The figure stirred, perhaps sensing his roused state, and lifted her head daintily.
Their gazes closed a circuit and both figures froze. He could hear her uneven breathing in the room, heart stuttering to match his own.
Finally, she moved but with a cautious gait, warily rising from the couch and approaching his side. Xander’s hand dropped, he tensed.
“You’re awake,” she whispered and he knew that voice. The same voice that spoke to him in his dreams. Perhaps this was still a dream. Reaching for the glass, she poured a small amount and dropped a plastic straw inside before raising it to his mouth. Xander hesitated a moment longer before sealing his lips around it. He drunk.
The first taste of water almost brought tears to his eyes. Wordless and overwhelmed with relief that flooded his throat, coolness spreading across the dryness of his chest. Xander drank some more and slumped back on the pillow as she refilled it. He drank until the jug was empty.
“It’s hot.” He whispered for the first time and the figure shifted, lifting a set of blankets off of him.
“You have a fever,” she explained mildly, wringing a piece of cloth in a bucket before wiping at his forehead gently. He could smell her. The familiar scent of Salem, herbaceous and soft. Feminine.
“It’s hot.” He repeated as a shudder of heat licked through his. Beads of sweat broke out on his skin, dampening the bandages that straddled his whole torso and legs. “Windows?”
“They’re already open,” she whispered, “It’s negative three degrees already.”
He fell silent, uncomfortable.
“Rest,” the cloth placed on his forehead, another on his neck, “Let the fever break.”
The eleventh day rolled in with him conscious in the room alone. Xander gripped the sheets in the void of his thoughts, the fever had subsided leaving him in a state of complete frailness. Light footsteps approached his shed, the door creaked open and the figure hovered by the entrance. A gust of cold winter air plunged the room’s temperature and he shivered violently, chills racing up and down his spine.
“Sorry about that,” the girl spoke and set something down on the nightstand. Her whole body was wrapped in layers of clothes. She began to unwrap her scarf, then jacket, boots, gloves, thick socks until she stood in nothing but a lime green woolen sweater, jeans and hijab. His gaze scurried from her own, fixated on the ceiling as the sound of a chair dragging to his bedside filled the room’s silence. More shuffling sounds. Silence.
“Are you hungry?” Her breath was cold and warm.
Xander could feel nothing but weakness. If his body was on starvation mode, he was unaware. “I don’t know.” He whispered.
“I brought chicken broth,” clanging of metal and soon enough, the scent of hot chicken soup filtered through the air. His stomach came alive. “Can you sit up?”
Xander’s eyes fluttered shut, he inhaled and tried moving his hands over the firm mattress before lifting himself. The effort was excruciating and he released a sharp exhale as skin stretched and rubbed against the friction bandage. He groaned softly, hands weak and shaking from the support. The figure leaned towards him and aided in position the pillows behind his back until he could finally sit up, leaning back heavily against the headboard.
The sheets dropped away and Xander stared at his completely bandaged torso. Yellow dried liquid mixed with red in different areas. It smelled strongly of medicine and disinfectant.
“We probably have to change them after this.” She spoke and he shut his eyes, pressing the back of his head against the wall. His jaw clenched to prevent from shaking. She was watching him pitifully and reached for the bowl. His eyes followed her movements as she scooped a small amount of steaming soup and raised it to his mouth.
His mouth parted tentatively, heated liquid burning his tongue. Xander winced and she retreated with an apologetic look. “I’m sorry,” she spoke and he shook his head, swallowing the contents. The next round, she blew at the soup before feeding him.
Xander ate in silence. The sound of spoon on porcelain. Soft huffing breaths. Shallow heartbeats. Eventually, the spoon grazed the bottom of the bowl and she set it down with a small smile, “That wasn’t so bad.” His eyes shut in relief, stomach warm and full.
“Thank you.” Xander spoke and she nodded, adjusting her hijab.
“No worries,” they hovered by each other in silence, it was comfortable nonetheless. “I’m Ameena, by the way. Salem’s niece.”
Xander had forgotten about Salem’s announcement. His niece was supposed to arrive a week ago and she did. He had left for the party the night of her arrival and been bedridden the whole week.
Ameena nodded, flattening her palms on her jeans. “It’s a pleasure meeting you Xander, despite the circumstances.”
He wished he could smile. The gesture twisting into a grimace. Fortunately, she did not speak after and he was grateful for it. Sensing the need for him to sleep again. Ameena shifted on the seat, “We need to change your bandages then I’ll leave you to rest,” her hand was reaching for his torso, hovering hesitantly. The deepest shade of brown eyes he had ever witnessed, seeking permission first. “May I?”
Xander nodded and leaned forward. The skin on his stomach clenched as she used surgical scissors to cut through the bandages. “This might hurt,” Ameena spoke, breath warm against his spine as she gently pried off the material that clung to dead shriveled skin. The process was low and excruciating, each breath he inhaled exhaled as she tried her best to cut through. The pus had dried into sticky like glue. Wounds opening as the first layer of dead skin clung to the bandages. Fresh blood trailed.
Ameena worked meticulously from the back round to his front then arms and legs. At the sight of his body, Xander made a choking noise. It was completely burned. Third degree scarification. Pink and white and brown splotches.
“Whoever did this, sucks.” Ameena whispered. Next she cleaned his wounds with a saline solution then applied cooling ointment before wrapping them up in fresh bandages.
He sunk exhausted back onto the bed as she discarded the bandages into a bucket before gathering everything else and dressing. “I will be back tomorrow with breakfast, if you wish to use the toilet, there’s a bucket in the corner and more water by the nightstand.”
“Thank you.” He whispered and her kind eyes regarded him briefly.
“Sleep well, Xander.” Then she was gone.
The course of the following week had Xander’s energy returning slowly. He was able to sit up without a struggle, feed himself and finally walk- albeit with a struggle, only to break out breathless.
Ameena’s visits were constant and he was grateful for the company.
Salem did not visit.
Xander could not blame him. If anything, he was glad for him not to visit. The shame was too great. The first unspoken rule between them had been broken. Do not expose yourself.
Ameena brought food during eating hours and snacks late at night; hot chocolate when the weather got too unbearably cold. They spent time in silence, occasionally broken from her side with a story or two. She did not ask about how he got the wounds and he did not tell.
On the eighteenth day, Xander stood by his closet, reaching for a plain grey shirt he slid it over his bandaged body. Next was his pants. The process was a struggle, stinging pain shifting with each movement. He inhaled and smothered it down while wearing a jacket then socks. Everything that had once fit now hung desperately on his frame. Two weeks surviving on watered down liquids had wasted his muscle.
The door opened.
“Wow, you’re up early.” Ameena balanced a tray of toast and scrambled eggs with a glass of warm orange juice. “Where are you going?”
“For a walk.”
“Will you be able to make it?”
He nodded, the need to leave for fresh air swathed him with desperateness. That and someone else.
“Do you need my company?”
“No, thank you.” He whispered gratefully and she nodded without question.
“Alright, I’ll be back by evening with dinner.”
Xander nodded and stepped out of the cabin.
Snow had yet to fall. Remnants of autumn still in the air as dark clouds hung low and heavy. The first breath of fresh air stung his lungs but he breathed it gratefully. His steps were unhurried, a weak struggle down the path and towards the forest. Xander adjusted his baseball cap as a breeze ruffled his overgrown curls and shoved his hands deeper into the depths of his pockets. His breaths came as mist, hues of red on the highs of his cheekbones and nose.
The path was longer than expected and he found himself stopping more than once to catch his breath, fatigue weighing the lightness of his bird-like bones.
Eventually, Xander reached the river that separated his place from hers. He stared across the banks then stepped on a rock, and another, and another, slowly closing the space until he stood on the other side.
Xander stared at the uphill climb.
He wouldn’t make it. He was already tired and sweating cold chills. Breathless, he dropped to his knees and sat down before lying on his back. Dark clouds fleeted above him. A cold wind stirred his hair, cooling sweat.
His eyes shut.
When he woke, it was not to the sky but rather a sudden intrusion.
Something pressed against his own face. Steady expectant breathing. Strong scent of chocolate milk. Xander’s eyes pried open as he came face to face with copper green eyes. The sudden unexpected appearance momentarily bewildered him as he just about reeled back only to realize who it was-
“Elliot.” He breathed, a sudden weight lifting from his pained chest.
Elliot blinked, nose pressed hard against his, eyes wide. Her mouth was sealed on a straw plunged into a chocolate milk box and she sipped at it violently, sucking sounds filling the space between them.
“Hello,” he tried again, softly. And she sucked the milk carton one last time, a deep inhale as the box shrunk in her small hand before releasing the straw with a satisfied exhale and what happened next, Xander did not expect it.
Long and hard.
A gust of air from the depths of her stomach, breezing past his face, blowing his curls. Xander shut his eyes, expression pinched in disgust as he rolled onto his back.
“That is disgusting, Elliot.”
His mate sat up and threw the empty box at his face, “Where have you been?”
“Sick,” he explained calmly and her eyes widened.
“Is that why you’re in bandages?” She pointed at his torso, his shirt had ridden up during his nape exposing the layers of gauze. Xander nodded with a sigh, “What happened?”
“I-” how could he explain to her his situation? Lying only felt worse. “... Allergic reaction.”
“Oh,” she spoke then burped again, “How are you feeling?”
He was watching her, the familiar face he did not realize just how much he had missed. “Better.”
The answer seemed to have satisfied her, for she crossed her legs, head bobbing back and forth. Her hair had been trimmed into a pixie cut. “I thought you died.” Elliot admitted and his eyebrows furrowed, “I had a nightmare that you were burning.”
“I looked for you for five days.”
“I tried fishing but my line got caught in a rock.”
“My teacher gave me detention for not finishing homework.”
Xander fell silent as she spoke on about how terrible her week went. As though his state of agony affected her life as well. Parallel worlds.
“I’m sorry.” He stated, eyes searching her own for any sort of pain. There was none. Only irritation and anger and exhaustion. “Have you eaten?”
She nodded, eyes squinting at the river before flopping on the grass by his side. “Have you eaten?”
“Not yet, no.”
“Are you hungry?” She was already reaching into her pocket despite his declining answer, and pulled out a handful of MnM’s, melted chocolate and colors staining her palms. “It was Charles birthday in class,” Elliot explained placing them on the ground. She plucked one and ate it, grass and all. “I saved them for you.”
Xander made a face at her indifference to the soil. Despite it all, he reached for one blue MnM that’s color had faded and had strands of her pocket’s material, he ate it. The nut crushing between his teeth, sweet chocolate spreading on his tongue.
They ate, more so Elliot, and talked about nothing, conversation drifting from the river to her parents and the type of clouds above them.
“Nimbus.” Elliot explained, “My science teacher says its the clouds that bring rain.”
“Nimbus.” Xander repeated, staring at the clouds. Her finger appeared in his line of vision, pointing out a bird that flew past them.
His mouth twitched into a small smile, “Bird.”
He followed her chocolate stained finger to a tree, “Tree.”
The hand lowered to the river before them, “River.”
“River.” Xander repeated.
Her finger poked his cheek, “Xander.” Elliot stated matter-of-factly.
She pointed at her red nose, serious expression. “Elliot.”
All the pain he felt during that week shifted to nothing as his hollowed bones filled. When he smiled, it was not in agony.