Ben picked at the dinner set in front of him. It had been a really long day. After his breakdown at the hospital his whole family had been brought down to the police station for questioning. Ben had barely responded, the pity in the eyes of the officers only serving to piss him off further. Then they'd dropped by the house to pack overnight bags. Now both of his parents were allowed to stay at the hospital overnight but he was dumped at Louis's house because he had things like school to worry about. Ben thought that was BS, it was the weekend for crying out loud! But heaven forbid the precious prodigy fall behind in his studies while his brother lay fighting for his life.
Louis had brought him all the work he'd missed during the school day with a careful smile. In fact, his friend's whole family was walking on eggshells around him. Constantly asking if he was okay, if he needed anything to just ask. He was really tempted to ask them sarcastically to un-stab his brother. But it wasn't like it was their fault. It was his. His fault. He speared a green bean harshly with his fork.
Louis's mom cleared her throat. Ben looked up and realized everyone else had finished eating and was clearing their plates. His friends normally rambunctious little sisters were uncharacteristically quiet and obedient that evening. "Ben sweetie, would you like to set up your bed when you're done? We can put an inflatable mattress in Louis' room if you'd like."
Ben shrugged, returning his gaze to his plate. "Sure." After picking at his plate for a few more minutes, he allowed himself to be led to his friend's room- which was far cleaner than he'd ever seen it before. Louis's dad was already on the ground pumping up a twin sized mattress and Louis himself walked in a second later with an armful of blankets. "I didn't know which one you'd want so I kinda just grabbed all of them."
Ben selected a few comfortable looking blankets from his friend's arms and set them on the now inflated mattress. Louis sat on his own bed and the two sat in an awkward silence, neither sure what to say.
Louis scratched his head. "Do you, uh, wanna watch a movie? Or we could play on my Xbox. Or.. uh."
"-movie." Ben interrupted. "A movie's fine."
"Yeah, sure man."
The boys spent the rest of their evening re-watching classic movies. Ben wasn't really paying attention to any of it, but he was grateful for the distraction. After a few hours he could feel himself drifting off so he excused himself to go to bed. But as soon as he had laid down his mind began racing. What if Ethan never woke up? What if Ethan's heart had stopped again? He could be dead right now. His brother could be dead and he was just laying here. Ben sat up, any exhaustion forgotten, his breath coming in quick huffs. It was going to be a long night.
Robin arrived at the shop at a quarter to nine, like she did every morning. Surprisingly, the door was locked when she arrived. That was strange, Ethan was scheduled today and he was almost always the first one there. Well, everyone runs late sometimes. She began her usual routine of opening up the shop for business. Other employees began to clock in gradually but Ethan was nowhere to be seen. Strange. Robin had wanted to check on him after yesterday, make sure he was doing alright. She wouldn't blame him for not wanting to come to work today, but he should have at least covered his shift first. He was a responsible kid, this really didn't seem like him.
The workday was a stressful one, Rachel was still sick and Ethan never showed up. So they were short-staffed during one of the busiest times of the week and the year: Mother's day was coming up in just a few weeks. Needless to say, Robin was getting annoyed. If Ethan didn't contact her she'd have to give him a warning. If something like this happened again he would be fired.
A few hours before closing Robin's cell phone rang. Was Ethan finally getting back to her? The caller id confirmed it was him, so she set down the order she was wrapping and excused herself to the break room. She picked up the call, hand on her hip in annoyance. "Hello?"
An unfamiliar voice responded on the other side, surprising Robin. "Hello? Is this Robin, uh, Ethan's boss?" The voice sounded like it belonged to a middle aged man who was very tired and distressed. She paused, confused.
"...Yes, this is her. May I ask who you are sir?"
The man took in a shaky breath. "I'm Ethan's father. I was just calling to tell you my son… he's in the hospital. He was-" the man paused again, his voice starting to warble. "His apartment was broken into last night and my son was attacked."
Robin gasped, her hand covering her mouth in shock. Any annoyance and stress she was feeling gave way to concern. "Good Lord, is he okay?"
"He's... stable for now ma'am." Ethan's father took in another deep breath. The poor man sounded like he was going to faint. "I'm sorry we couldn't contact you earlier, we just got access to his phone."
"Oh please don't apologize, you just worry about Ethan for me okay? I'll get his shifts covered."
Ethan's father sighed in relief. "That means a lot ma'am, thank you."
"If there's anything else I can do for your family, please do let me know." Robin said sincerely. "Oh that poor boy, he just can't catch a break."
The man chuckled. "He's a trooper. Well thank you so much miss..."
"Just call me Robin."
"Thank you Robin. We'll be in touch."
They exchanged goodbyes and the line went silent. Robin dropped her head into her hands. She felt horrible for how she'd judged Ethan, but there was no way she could have known. Their shop would have to bring some flowers to him at some point. It was always strange to deliver flowers to people she knew, despite the fact that they sold floral arrangements to patients all the time. She returned to work with renewed vigor. Flowers weren't much, but it was the least she could do.
Ben visited the hospital every chance he could get. He still wasn't allowed to stay in Ethan's room for long periods of time, but he would milk the time he had dry. Despite nurses reassuring him that his brother's condition was slowly improving, he was still haunted by thoughts of him not being there the next time he visited. He wouldn't do much when he was in the room with his brother, just listen to the beeping of monitors and steady stream of air and remind himself that his brother was still alive. It was addicting, and leaving was excruciating.
After three days he was taken off the ventilator and an oxygen mask was placed over his face in its stead. But he was still asleep. His brain activity was promising, and nurses told Ben he should talk to Ethan- that even though he might not respond he may be able to hear him. But words were hard to come by. He often just sat in the room next to his brother, staring at the plants that had been brought by relatives and coworkers. There were a lot of flowers- not that Ben expected any less for his brother. It all looked a little overkill to him but he knew Ethan would appreciate it. And it gave him something to look at to distract himself. Ben hadn't had a good night's sleep in days, and school was slowly wearing him down. Everything he previously cared about felt so pointless now: all he wanted now was to make sure his brother was alive.
His parents were both more of a mess than Ben was. They were taking turns sleeping at home in a sort of unspoken agreement. His mom wouldn't stop switching between crying hysterics, and sickening positivity, and his dad had completely shut off. When it was absolutely necessary they talked at each other, but not necessarily with each other. And Ben was stuck somewhere in the middle, being juggled between school, visits, and the overwhelming tension between his parents.
Despite the previous reassurances from the police, no real progress had been made on the case. The police told them it appeared to be a mere case of pretty robbery gone wrong; the evidence they found didn't even lead to any previously convicted felon. If they weren't in the system they were much harder to catch. Only about a thousand dollars worth of possessions had even been stolen. It was almost laughable: his brother had been nearly killed over a thousand dollars.
The police had also brought Ethan's cat over, as no one else could really take care of her. She was very jumpy, not letting anyone pet her or try to pick her up. But Ben saw something familiar in her eyes. A deep fear that he only recognized because it was becoming an all too familiar feeling for himself.
The neighbor who had opened the door backed away, mumbling something Ethan didn't understand. No! He collapsed back to the ground. The operator was still asking questions, and he tried his best to retrieve answers from his muddled brain. The initial shock was wearing off and a white hot pain was starting to throb from his stomach and hand. He tried his best to hold the wound with his left hand, but it was shaky and weak at best. Everything was warm and sticky and muddy. Blood dribbled out of his mouth.
The door creaked open again and Ethan strained to look at the man racing into his apartment. The light turned on and he winced, the bright light piercing his skull painfully. The man began talking to the operator, and he turned his head to talk to someone else. Was someone else there? His vision was so blurry already, was he even wearing his glasses anymore? Did he even put them on in the first place? He was getting so tired….
Someone grabbed under his armpits and hoisted him away from the warm puddle he'd been making on the floor. His wounds screamed and he groaned, wincing. Suddenly an agonizing pressure was placed on his wounds. He nearly screamed, the noise coming out more muffled. A feminine voice was talking somewhere, and he saw a face hovering in front of him. Who..
His stomach screamed in agony, and his mouth was warm again. He choked. Tears began to flow down his face. Was… was he going to die? The fog in his brain cleared a little with the sudden heaviness of that thought. He could never see his brother again, his family… he choked on another sob.
The white noise in his ears grew louder. More commotion interrupted his thoughts. He was being moved again. The pressure on his body where he wasn't feeling numb changed. Who was.. what..
He had called an ambulance. He was being moved to an ambulance. Vaguely he could tell that an EMT was talking to him but his brain wasn't processing any of it. He tried to say something, but it came out as a weak moan. His mouth couldn't move much, air was being blown onto his face. Piercing white lights shone down on his face and he clamped his eyes shut. Everything felt thick and fuzzy, and he was having a hard time holding onto reality. The commotion around him slowly faded into white noise, and he stopped fighting the overwhelming urge to fall asleep.
Everything was warm. Ethan could hear voices on and off, but they were muffled. His entire body felt so heavy, almost non-existent. Maybe it wasn't fair to say he woke up, but awareness came and went. Sometimes he swore he could hear his parent's voices. He wondered where Ben was. Was his brother okay? He felt like he had something he needed to tell him…
Ben felt himself drifting off. He was holding Ethan's left hand in his own, clutching onto it like a lifeline over the edge of the bed. It had been six days since the robbery. Ethan was still asleep. Ben hadn't had a single night's sleep that wasn't interrupted by a nightmare or waking up in a cold sweat in the past week. He wasn't staying at Louis's house anymore, although his friend's mom still brought over dinner most nights. It often went largely uneaten, but the effort was appreciated nonetheless. His teachers had all also been made aware of his situation, and word spread slowly through whispers and glances. It was infuriating, and he hated himself for ignoring it.
His parents had stopped sleeping at the hospital. His mom was now permanently staying at his aunt's house. No one said anything when she didn't come back. No one was ever saying anything.
Ethan's hand twitched under Ben's grip and he jumped. What was happening? Was… was he waking up? The rhythm of the monitors changed and Ben lurched over the side of the bed, pressing the call nurse button. His hands shook. All this time he'd been praying that Ethan would wake up, but now that it was actually happening he wasn't ready. He didn't know if he could face his brother ever again. A nurse gently moved him aside while another began examining his brother's vitals.
The nurse who had pulled him aside placed a hand on his shoulder. "It looks like he's beginning to wake up. This is a good sign. It might take a while for him to fully regain consciousness though."
Ben nodded, not taking his eyes off his brother. Ethan's brows had furrowed slightly and his eyes were moving under his lids. It wasn't a dramatic eyes ripping open, sitting up gasping for air kind of waking up. But slowly, over the course of a few agonizing minutes, he woke up. Ben only left the room to grab his dad, who had driven him there and was waiting outside the room. Ben lingered by the door while his dad walked up to the bed like he was in a trance. He brushed his hand against Ethan's face and his eyes twitched before opening, half-lidded. Ethan blinked slowly, his eyes drifting around the room before settling on his dad. Ben held his breath.
Something brushed against Ethan's face. He was beginning to regain sensation in his body. It felt heavy, sharp pricks and warm throbbing slowly becoming more painful. He half opened his eyes. Everything was white and blurry, a monotonous beeping the only noise he could hear. A shape in his periphery came more into focus. It was… it was his dad.
He tried to say something but his voice caught in his throat painfully. He realized his mouth was incredibly dry and stiff. What was going on? His dad reached down and gently embraced him. Ethan attempted to hug him back, confused, but his body wouldn't move. He racked his mind for any memory of how he'd gotten here. He'd gotten home from work and taken a nap. Then he'd just eaten dinner and worked on homework. Ben was going to visit him. What else…
Oh. His heart rate began to quicken as the memories of the robbery began to flood back in. The beeping in the room also began to speed up and Ethan winced. He must have been in the hospital. His dad backed away, looking worried.
A nurse appeared in his line of sight. "Good afternoon Mr Miller, you're in the hospital right now." she checked something behind his line of sight. "Do you remember what happened? Blink once for yes, twice for no."
Ethan blinked once, heavily, the small action taking nearly all his energy. He panted, breathing in the oxygen being filtered onto his face like he was dying of thirst. It felt like there was a large weight on his chest.
"Good. Would you like some painkillers? You've sustained some pretty serious injuries but you're going to recover."
He blinked again. Ever since his consciousnesses had returned he'd been noticing more throbbing aches and pains that were getting harder to ignore.
The nurse nodded and fiddled with some equipment. She placed a button under the pointer finger on his left hand. "I've given you a dose now but if you feel like you need more just tap this okay?" He tried to nod but settled for blinking again. She gave him a kind smile. "Just focus on resting for now okay? I'll leave you with your family for now."
Ethan tried to turn his head towards his dad, but only succeeded in a minuscule movement. Out of the corner of his eye he tried to see if anyone else was in the room. He needed… he needed to talk to Ben. Where was his brother? His dad came back into his line of sight and began talking to him but everything was getting fuzzy again so he closed his eyes and drifted into a painless oblivion.
Ben watched on in horror, frozen, as Ethan tried to look around the room. He couldn't let him see him, he would… he would hate him. After just a few minutes his brother had already fallen asleep again and he let go of the breath he'd been holding. Wait.
"I- I thought he was awake. Why did he fall asleep again Dad?"
His father sighed and pulled away from the bed. "That's normal Ben, he might not be fully lucid for a day or two." His dad patted his shoulder and pulled out his phone. "I've got to... call your mother real quick."
Ben nodded numbly and crept back into the guest chair. He pulled his knees up to his chest and just stared. The heart rate monitor had slowed down again, and his brother looked more peaceful than he had in days. It was probably just the drugs, he thought.
Guilt began to overwhelm his gut again. His brother was in so much pain. Did he feel it when he was in the coma? What if he had been in pain that whole time and couldn't do anything about it? Why had Ben been so selfish to ask his brother to drop everything? If he hadn't just been a selfish idiot. And his parents never even knew. He'd never told them he'd planned to ditch on the weekend.
Ben's breathing quickened. He nearly laughed hysterically. If he was the one hooked up to the heart rate monitor he'd probably trick the nurses into thinking he was having a heart attack.
As was becoming an annoyingly common occurrence, he began to cry. Normally he never considered himself to be a very emotional person: that role went to Ethan. But he felt justified in his misery these past six days. This was his punishment right? Never confess to your crimes, but be plagued with a harrowing guilt because of it. Like that one Russian book he'd been reading in his English class.
His dad came back into the room a few minutes later. Ben didn't bother wiping at his face. Any shame he'd felt had been stripped away recently. His dad glanced at him and then looked away, scratching at the stubble that had been forming on his chin. "Visiting hours are almost over, son. Want to... pick up some dinner?"
Ben shrugged, staring at his knees. "Sure." He knew he'd be expected to follow his dad without another word, so he reluctantly uncurled himself from his ball on the chair, sparing one last glance at his brother.
Ben's father had never been a man of many words. The car ride was silent, the radio muted because it gave his dad a headache. His dad didn't bother asking what he wanted, instead opting to find the nearest drive thru and ordering for him. Not that Ben cared, he knew neither of them were going to eat much.
They returned to their empty house. Dishes were piled up in the sink, and the kitchen island was covered in bills and paperwork. His dad brought the food in, and the two of them sat on opposite ends of the dining room table. Ben reluctantly picked at his burger and fries for a few minutes but decided he didn't even have the energy to pretend. He resorted to scrolling mindlessly through his Instagram feed, resting his chin on the table.
"Ben, you have to eat."
Ben glanced up, a little taken aback. Now his dad was deciding to care? He scoffed. "I'm not hungry."
His dad sighed. "You've barely eaten in days. Please just eat something."
"I said I'm not hungry! Am I not allowed to not be hungry?"
His dad set his food down on the table and spoke in a firm tone. "Ben David Miller! I've been tolerating a lot of your disrespectful behavior this week. But you and I both know you can't keep acting like this. Your life can't fall apart just because-"
Ben stood up, fuming. "Because what, Dad! Don't act like your life isn't falling apart either! This entire family is falling apart, but I'm the only one who's not allowed to be disrespectful? You and Mom can act like you don't have feelings but that doesn't mean-
His father stood up as well, voice threatening. "Don't bring your mother into this."
"Why not? When will we ever bring her into this? You never even talk to her anymore, you just let her waltz out of the house. Did you ever ask me if I was okay with any of this? When do I get considered?!" Ben was bordering on hysterical now.
His Dad's face twitched and Ben knew he was going to cross a line. But he didn't care. "What if Ethan had died dad?! Would anything have actually changed? Because it's certainly not changing now."
His father shut down and slumped back into his chair. He looked exhausted. "Ben. Your room, now."
Ben picked up his phone and stuffed his hands into his pockets. "Fine. I was just leaving anyway." His shoulders shook and he barely kept himself together before entering his bedroom. He screamed into his hands, all the pent up rage and anger at himself finally boiling over. He kicked over his trash can and collapsed on his bed, screaming more into his pillow. None of this was fair. He hadn't asked for any of this. And the only person he ever found real solace in was in a hospital bed. And it was all. His. Fault. His screams devolved into angry sobs.
Ben's family was religious, but they'd never been super devout church-goers. They didn't even really identify with a certain sect of Christianity. Ben honestly thought his Mom just liked the socializing and morality of it all. He had honestly never put much thought into it before. It was just what they did. He didn't even know if Ethan had even kept going to church once he moved out. But right now, if there was a God out there, Ben was begging to him: please let this all be over.