Chapter 1 - Comfort
“Well, I don’t really know much about pop culture,” the man lied aptly. It wasn’t a complete lie, though; it was true that he wasn’t well-versed in pop culture. Above anything, he just wanted to finish paying quickly and go home. Just in time, another customer stood behind him, glaring at the cashier. The cashier hastily finished processing the payment and looked up.
The man was taller than he had expected. Moreover, the chest before the cashier’s eyes was clearly tight and muscular, despite being hidden under the shirt. When he glanced at the man’s face, which was positioned much higher than he had imagined, he jolted.
As he widened his eyes and blinked, the man put the items into the plastic bags himself, said a simple word of farewell, and left.
While the cashier blankly stared at his back, the customer who was standing behind the man began to complain, “Why in the world did that take so long?”
“Did you see his face? The man who just walked out?”
The customer stared at the cashier in awe. However, the cashier was still gazing in the direction where the man had disappeared toward.
He murmured, “He must be an alpha, right?”
The cashier marveled once again, so the customer scrunched up their face and stared in the same direction as him. “I didn’t smell his pheromones.”
“He’s so good-looking, though. He has to be an alpha. He’s pretty jacked, too.”
“Really? His back was definitely a sight to behold, though.” The customer belatedly took interest, but the man was already nowhere to be seen.
The cashier finally came to his senses and sighed as he scanned the items. ‘I hope he comes again,’ he thought.
‘I’m never going to that store again.’
Josh gritted his teeth as he violently swerved in and out of the lane. Cars honked and curses exploded all around him, but he ignored them all and stepped harder on the accelerator.
He was already 30 minutes late. Why did the cashier have to dawdle like that? He had stretched out what could have been done in 10 minutes by making useless small talk. Moreover, the topic brought up by the cashier was something that Josh would much rather avoid. He had already been hearing various things about Chase Miller for days, to the point where he was developing a headache.
It was something that couldn’t be avoided even if he had tried to. Wherever people gathered, everyone talked about him. The soft drink that was dispensed at a push of the vending machine button had his face stamped on it. Whenever he turned the TV on, the news talked about him, and a giant billboard of his perfume advertisement stood its post by the road.
As long as he lived in this country, he could not turn away from Chase Miller.
Josh caught himself from swearing violently out of irritation and barely managed to swallow it. Josh had gotten quite a shock when Pitt had heard a bad word that Josh had said and innocently repeated it. Since then, Josh always took extra care not to even accidentally let any inappropriate words slip. However, days like this were certainly difficult to endure not swearing.
He had to picture Pitt’s face and hold it in with all his might. When he finally arrived home, he genuinely almost cheered out loud.
Josh skipped three stairs per stride and finally reached his home. As soon as he flung open the door, he called out for his child. “Pitt!”
Pitt, who was playing with the babysitter on the living room floor, turned his head and shouted back, “Daddy!”
Pitt reached his short arms out toward him. Josh promptly picked him up and showered his whole face with kisses. The satisfaction that welled up in his chest made it almost difficult to breathe. It felt as if the exhaustion that was piled up from the day’s work was evaporating in a matter of seconds.
Only after indulging in a touching reunion after five whole hours of separation did Josh acknowledge the babysitter with Pitt still propped up in his arms. “Thanks for your work, as usual.”
“No worries. Pitt is such a sweet boy, and it makes things very easy for me.”
He was a university student who was working part-time as a babysitter to look after the child in Josh’s stead. Josh gazed down at the ordinary university student who was at least a head shorter than him.
He smiled and said, “I’m really in your debt. It’s exams soon, isn’t it? Do let me know if there are days when you can’t work, yeah?”
“Of course, Josh. I’ll try not to cancel anything. I’ll see you next time, Pitt,” said the babysitter simply as he held the child’s hand.
Josh paid the babysitter his daily pay, and he was finally alone with Pitt. Pitt loved climbing up Josh’s shoulder and sitting on it; as usual, Josh began to prepare dinner with Pitt on his shoulders.
“Wah, ahh, baah!” mumbled the child inaudibly, bouncing on his bottom. It was probably the theme song of his favorite cartoon. Needless to say, that was just what Josh assumed.
Josh pecked the child’s chubby calf and dexterously maneuvered around the small kitchen. He effortlessly grilled some steak and fixed up a potato salad, finishing off with some peas.
“No peas,” Pitt complained in his baby seat in front of the table as soon as he spotted green on his plate.
Josh began to cut the meat so that it would be easy for Pitt to eat while saying, “Peas are friends with potatoes. They’ll only be happy if they go into Pitt’s tummy together. Because they’re good friends, you know? You wouldn’t want to say goodbye to Jason either, would you?”
Jason was the puppy plushie that Pitt liked very much. It was a pretty convincing attempt, but Pitt didn’t back down.
“No peas,” Pitt grumbled.
His stubborn pout briefly reminded Josh of someone. Josh jolted at the hint of the similar-looking but much older man’s cold expression.
But it was Pitt who sat before his eyes, not that man. That man was not cute nor adorable like Pitt. Moreover, Pitt’s face as he looked down at his peas in disappointment was incomparably lovely.
In the end, Josh planted a kiss on the top of Pitt’s head and slid the peas that Pitt had picked out into the blender, pulverizing them without a sign. He then stuck out the empty plate and announced, “The enemy has been defeated!”
“Wawawawah!” Pitt cheered excitedly.
Pitt happily sat and swung his legs back and forth. Josh loudly kissed the child’s cheek and began to feed him dinner. Pitt’s mouth quickly became dirty with food. Without hesitation, Josh took out his handkerchief that he carried with him everywhere and wiped his mouth with his gaze fixed upon Pitt. Watching his small hand firmly holding onto and using the fork could very well make his heart burst.
Josh slowly paced around the living room with the child in his arms, waiting for him to fall asleep. When Pitt had fallen asleep, Josh laid him down on the bed, loosely cleaned the house, took a shower, and finally, took out a can of beer.
“Phew…” A content sigh trickled out of his mouth. He wasn’t financially unchallenged, but he had no qualms about his life at all. Just imagining Pitt growing up and leaving the house for university brought tears to his eyes, but this was something far off into the future. He finished the whole can and went to bed.
When his phone ringtone ominously echoed across the room, Josh was deep asleep without even so much as a dream.
“Yes, hello… Emma?” he answered, still half asleep, before jolting up at the sound of his little sister sobbing. He quickly glanced at the clock on top of the bedside table and calculated the time difference. It was 8 a.m. in the West.
“Oh, Josh, w-what do I—”
“What’s wrong? Did something happen?” he urged.
Emma replied between sobs, “Mom collapsed, and… and we’re, we’re in the hospital now.”
“What? Emma, don’t cry… and tell me slowly. What happened?” Josh’s tone became harsher without him even realizing it. He could hear his sister blubbering on the other side of the phone. He forcefully shook his sleepily dazed head like a dog.
He pressed on with greater urgency, “Stop crying and tell me. Are you in the ER right now?”
Emma began to sob again. She usually had no problem keeping things under control, so it was rare to see her like this. Josh felt his insides boil, but he didn’t have a choice. Blaming the cruel circumstances for not being able to run to her and comfort her immediately, he waited patiently.
After some stifling minutes, Emma finally managed to regain her breath and began to stammer out an explanation. Their mother’s illness had worsened, and she had to be admitted to the ER. She also told him that her savings had run out due to the repeated admissions.
When she had laboriously finished speaking, Josh asked a little more gently than before, “Did you look into insurance?”
“I heard from them last time that they will no longer cover the cost of future onsets… still, I’m planning to pay a visit later just in case. I called work and let them know that I’ll be taking time off. I’m also going to look into getting a loan from the bank, though I’m not sure if they’ll let me borrow more…” Emma trailed off as she swallowed a ragged breath.
She began again, “Josh, I really… really thought that something might happen to Mom. Her hands were so cold, and she wouldn’t answer even when I called her name. Even her breathing was… back then, I really… nnh, hnngh…”
“Emma, Emma.” Josh raised his voice slightly and called out her name. Before his sister lost her cool again, he continued, “All right, just calm down. Mother’s okay now, right?”
“Yeah. They took care of the emergency,” Emma replied, her voice still shaking. However, it was clear that she was trying her best to remain calm.
Thinking about how terrifying it must have been alone made Josh want to fly over immediately. However, there was something else that he had to do first.
“What did the doctor say? Can she be discharged?” he asked.
“No, it looks like she’ll be staying for a few days. They also wanted to run a few more tests…” After coughing out a faltering breath, Emma asked with a mellower tone, “What do I do, Josh?”
“Don’t worry,” Josh said firmly. “I’ll make it work somehow. It must have been hard. Did you get some sleep?”
“No,” mumbled Emma feebly. The weight of her exhaustion suddenly carried over from the other end of the line.
Josh deliberately asserted, “You can rest assured. Now go get some rest. I’ll call you again later.”
Emma sighed deeply and replied very wearily, “Yeah… I should sleep a little. I’ll leave things to you, Josh.”
“Don’t worry and go. Careful on the road,” he added with concern before hanging up.
A sudden cold silence took over. Josh sat blankly in the middle of darkness, summarizing the conversation in his head. No matter what, the situation was clear.
They needed money.
“Hahh…” In the end, he wrapped his hand around his head and let out a deep sigh. However, he couldn’t afford to stay absent-minded. Josh quickly recalled how much money he had on him at the moment. All that thought led to was a string of curse words.
He was gravely calculating how much money he would need when he heard the child crying in the distance. He hurriedly got up and went to the other room.
“Daddy, daddy!” The child burst into tears as soon as he found Josh.
Josh quickly lifted the child up from the bed. From time to time, Pitt would wake up in the middle of the night like this and start crying. As always, the child leaned his small body tightly onto Josh.
“It’s all right, Pitt, it’s all right,” Josh comforted him as he paced around the room. The sniffles soon diminished, and the child began to breathe deeply. Josh planted a kiss on Pitt’s head.
The warmth of the child’s body always managed to calm him down. Hoping that it would do the same this time, Josh took a deep breath of his scent. The characteristic sweet scent of a child seemed to soothe his anxiety a little. In the end, he stayed up on the couch with Pitt in his arms.