I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. I’m not sure I believe in reincarnation either. What does the moon Goddess even have in mind for an Omega orphan like me? The last thing I could remember was something close to both heaven and hell, the pain from the bite but also the pure bliss of being inside of Jess’ arms. Waking up, stirring from soupy darkness made me feel like I might have cheated death, but it left its mark on me. I was half rotten, nauseated and covered in sweat.
Groaning, I turned over, but something in my arm pulled and I cursed. Peeling my eyes open, I squinted, weak against the crisp light pouring out of a window. With my brow furrowed, I looked around a room I didn’t recognize and stared at the tube attached to my arm, leading up to an IV. At least it was better than recognizing this as the wrong house. At least it wasn’t Jacob’s mansion.
My last memories came in flashes: Jess’ lips, his breath brushing my face, the taste of his skin and his rough hands wandering across the outline of my body. Then, I remembered passing out. It was less like falling into darkness, but more like doing a belly flop. Everything hurt. Someone popped open my head and dumped a load of rocks inside. It felt like a headache that was never going to end.
I looked around, taking in the room and the big bed. My breath caught, my nerves circling around my throat, tightening and tightening. “Jess?” I took a chance, waiting for a response but nothing came.
Licking my lips, I carefully pulled away the bedspread and laid my feet flat, the floor creaking beneath me. I paused, waiting for the door to fly open for whoever put me here to check on me. I stared at the IV and my first thought caused a rush of pile to the top of my throat. Pain and gore had never sat well in my stomach. Closing my eyes, I held onto the needle. Underneath, it already felt bruised and sore. Still, I yanked out the needle and curled my lips to keep from full on screaming.
“Ow,” I whispered and let the needle drop. An orb of blood peaked out from my skin, so I pressed my hand against it. I walked carefully to the window, moving the curtain aside. Outside, the world was covered in pearly white snow. The trees wore long icicles across their slender limbs. Behind them, I could see mountains and nothing but gray skies.
The floor creaked again, but this time outside. There was someone out there. My heart squeezed. Without wasting too much time thinking, I ripped a lamp with a huge lampshade from the wall and held it over my head, ready for anything. Sure, I was shirtless and without shoes, but I had this lamp. Pushing the door, it creaked like an untuned note and I made it one step until I met someone’s eyes, a man. He stood just as frozen as me. He was taller than me and with enough muscle to probably throw me back in that room with one hand.
“St-stay there!” I spat out, shaky and with a crack in my voice, but I think he heard me. The stranger blinked, holding a basket full of folded laundry. He had the coloring of fine leather with golden hazel eyes. I gripped the lamp tighter and changed my stance to something closer to ‘I’m going to hurl this lamp at your face if you step out of line’.
“Where am I?” I asked a bit stronger.
The man blinked back into the moment. “Uh, you’re in the Dearest Inn.”
“And- and um,” I glanced behind my shoulder, but quickly back at him. “I have a friend. Um, his name is-”
“Jess?” The man said and my chest clenched. I lowered the lamp just slightly. Motioning behind him, the man explained. “Go down these stairs, take a right and run through the kitchen back door. He got a little stir crazy, so I told him to go chop some wood.”
“O-okay,” I nodded and took a step towards him. “Don’t move...” The man nodded at my command, playing along as we circled each other to switch places. Nervously, I swallowed as I found my footing on the stairs. I glanced down, noticing the spiral and feeling a great urge to run. I bowed slightly to the stranger and whispered, “th-thank you.”
With that, I whipped around and flew down the stairs. The man yelled after me, “Careful with that lamp! My wife likes that one a lot!”
I held the lamp close to my chest and it jingled as I bounced off the steps. I hobbled, skittering to the right and used my shoulder to bust through the kitchen doors and someone shouted in surprise. A red headed young man dropped two mugs and they shattered on the floor.
“Oh!” His bottle green eyes widened. “It’s you! You’re awake!”
Another man walked into the room from the other side, but staggered back when he saw me. “Whoa.”
I dismissed them and found the door to the outside, throwing it open. I stepped into the freezing cold and it held no mercy, sinking its icy teeth into my flesh. A shiver convulsed through me and I had to bite a groan down. The snow went up to my ankles, soaking the pajama bottoms I wore instantly. Across the blanket of white, there was a large shed and a growing pile of logs at its side.
Jess whirled an ax back and struck it straight through the middle of a log. It split into two pieces that toppled over. His broad shoulders heaved as Jess caught his breath. A smile broke out from my face and my feet moved on their own, drawn to him. Jess straightened his back, looking up at the sky as if realizing something. He turned sharply, laying his eyes on me.
This Jess made me nostalgic. He had shorter hair, a little shorter than before all this with a more trimly cut beard. His cheeks were fuller than they had been for months and his eyes were no longer glazed with exhaustion, though nothing erased the bags from his eyes. I hadn’t seen this Jess in a long time and I didn’t realize how much I missed him, until this moment as my eyes watered and my skin bristled from his smell. Jess had a smell like old quilts made of wool, like strong coffee and wood shavings. All my tension melted like butter on a freshly toasted bagel.
“Jess,” I whispered and I could see my breath. I dropped the lamp into the snow and walked towards Jess, the snow crunch underneath my feet. He whacked the middle of the trunk with the ax and trudged through the snow. His face was hard and I couldn’t immediately read it. “Jess?” I cocked my head, wondering if this was actually a dreamscape.
The moment he got close enough to me, he bent down and easily threw me over his shoulder. “Whoa!” I yelped, attempting to straighten myself up against his back. “Jess! Let me down!”
“Oh, no,” he shook his head, obviously pissed. “We’re gonna have a fight.”
“This is not what I was expecting,” I admitted, wriggling around and hopefully out of his hold. “I thought it was going to be more like me running into your arms and-”
“A week,” he stated.
“You were out for a week. A week, Drew. You lied to me for months. You said you were fine. You were not fine,” he shouted and kicked out the back door back into the kitchen. Another gasp flew out of the red head, but Jess just kept walking.
“Hello again,” the red head blinked, his entire body turning a rosy blush color. “Uh, so you’re Drew? I’m Ryan.”
“Nice to meet you,” I waved, but Jess hiked me back up and into a tighter hold. “Watch it!” I snapped.
“You’re fever was over one hundred degrees,” Jess’ lecture continued. “You’re wound was infected Drew. Infected! It could have killed you!”
“I’m sorry, Jess!” I wailed as Jess took the first step on the stairs and I was being jumbled around. A figure peaked around the corner, a woman with wild curls like black coils and sharp hazel eyes. She was a spritely thing, like a ballerina I could hold over my head.
“He’s awake!” She grinned, but her face switched in a blink of an eye. She reached around to get a swat in at Jess. “Why didn’t you tell me? Drew, you’ve already met my husband, Liam.” She motioned behind her to the man I met first. He waved as she placed her dainty hand on her chest. “I’m Grace.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m sorry, but I threw your lamp into the snow.”
“You can do whatever you want,” She smiled and patted my cheek. She slapped her husband’s shoulder. “To think you thought he was evil. “Jess,” she snapped at him next and swatted at his legs. “What are you doing?”
“We’re fighting,” Jess stated and kicked open the same bedroom door I ran out of earlier. “How long were you in pain?”
“Maybe a few months...” I winced, ready for the roar.
“A FEW MONTHS?!”
He trudged right at the bed and threw me back on it, which made me feel like I wasted the last five minutes running all over the house for him. If I knew I was going to end up right back in bed, I would have saved everyone the trouble and just screamed Jess’ name. Maybe then I could have spared my pants, now soaked through at the ankles. My back hit the bed and the entire structure wobbled. I flinched on impact, but peered up to find Jess lording over me. This was more what I had in mind with the exception of his scowl. He leaned in nice and close and I shrunk back, pressing myself into the pillow.
He whispered, his gruff voice my favorite sound. “It’s just you and me, Drew. I can’t protect you, if you’re not honest me. Promise me, right now that we won’t lie to each other ever again.”
I touched his jaw, looking into his glistening eyes like light shining through a ruby. In that moment, a mission fell into my lap. I, Drew Burton solemnly swore that I would bring back the golden amber of Jess’ eyes. He saved me, so I was going to return the favor, whatever that meant. I pulled him towards me by his neck, resting my forehead to his and whispered, “I promise. We don’t lie to each other. Starting now,” I smiled, though he was less amused. I tilted my head. “Can we stop fighting now?”
“Yes, but you’re on thin ice-”
I kissed him before he could finish. I kissed him to remind him that these lips were meant for more than fighting, more than begging for our lives. These lips were made just for me and I was going to get my lifetime supply of kisses, Jacob Coldwell be damned. I wrapped my arms around Jess’ neck and flung him on his back. The bed creaked, and we bounced, which coaxed a crooked smile out of Jess that I took my time kissing. His lips were soft, his body was warm underneath me and my hands worked through his fresh haircut. A light fluttering sensation tickled my chest. It fanned the dim fire between my legs, when it hit me suddenly. I snapped upward, my eyes widening as it became truer.
“What?” Jess’ brow hitched.
“Oh, good, you came up for air,” Grace commented from the doorway. “I’m going to give the Dr. Singh’s a call to let them know you’re awake. Drew,” she said, but I was too focused on Jess. I grabbed his hand, making him touch my face and waiting for it to happen. It always happened when we kissed... She said, “Just let Liam or I know what you want for dinner. It’s your pick tonight.” She slipped out of the doorway, closing the door behind her as I held my breath. Knowing Jess, I doubted he told Grace our whole story.
“What is it?” Jess asked again, moving my bangs out of the way.
“It doesn’t hurt,” I choked out and when Jess just looked more confused, I moved his hand to my neck. He touched the gauze, but still nothing happened and that was when it hit him. Jacob’s bite wasn’t hurting me anymore.
I let out a shaky breath, staring at the mirror at some scrawny kid I didn’t recognize. My eyes were sunken in, rimmed with a stormy gray color. I had become so pale, I was translucent. I could be dubbed the Dearest Inn’s resident ghost. I should offer my services to Grace. People might throw a lot money at this place if it was haunted.
My real attention focused on the gauze on my neck. Behind me, Jess leaned against the threshold of the bathroom. His eyes were fixed to my mirror image, waiting for a reaction. Good or bad, he was ready.
“What are you thinking?” He asked with a tinge of desperation. If he could, he’d probably saw my skull open just to read all the wrinkles in my brain, see the parenthetical of my life and understand me better than anyone.
“Nothing. My expectations are zero,” I lied.
I told the truth, “I’m hoping the mark is gone. If I can’t feel it anymore, it must be gone.”
My eyes flickered to him in the reflection. I didn’t have the guts to look at him directly.
“Just...” Jess restrained himself, crossing his arms. He got out, with a small head shake. “Just don’t get your hopes up.” It sounded annoyingly mature. I was the mature one. He wasn’t allowed to switch on me.
I gripped the sink that was shaped like a barrel and focused on my breathing. I could rip it off like a Band-Aid, just know and get it over with. My dread swelled up in my chest, just at the bottom of my throat, a horrible stuck feeling, on the edge of choking. I touched the tape, my finger pressed against my neck. My heart thrummed underneath. I closed my eyes and ripped. The sting only lasted mere seconds, but I still didn’t open my eyes. First, I could feel Jess moving behind me. The floor creaked as he arrived at my back. His hands slid up my arms.
From the miserable way he pronounced my name, I knew. Still, I had to look. If I didn’t look, if I didn’t see it, I wouldn’t believe it. I opened my eyes and staring back at me was a gnarly scar. My skin puckered into a sharp pink. Places of my skin also sunk, creating the shape of Jacob’s teeth. Tears rushed to my eyes and I sniffed as if I could keep it together. I closed my eyes, turning my head and holding my breath, a scream and a sob. Jess rested his forehead on my shoulder as they shook. His grip tightened on my arms. Flashes of that night came to me like a slap in the face. I could feel his teeth grazing my skin before they sunk into my flesh and I shuddered.
It still smelled like Jacob too.
I was never going to be free.
“I don’t know what to do,” I croaked, and the tears slipped down my cheeks anyways. I turned around, pressing my face into Jess’ chest and laid all my weight on him. He wrapped his arms around me, backed into the wall. He slowly lowered us to the floor. He didn’t speak. He only rubbed my back and my neck, letting me cry. I cried until a pounding headache put me right back into bed. Still completely clothed, Jess crawled into bed with me without letting go.
I wanted to apologize for the ugliness, for the smell and the constant reminder, but this was my burden to hold. This was my baggage and I refused to make Jess carry more of the load. I feel asleep at some point, deciding, at least for now, I would continue to wear the gauze. There was no way I was going to force Jess to look at that.