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After revealing that I had arrived home late to my family, Hazel spent some time lecturing me angrily.

“Brother shouldn’t be gone so long! You have homework to do! If you don’t get it done, you’ll never be able to support your mother and me!”

“Why am I supporting you?” I responded incredulously. “Even if I had money, none of my money would go to you!”

“Eh… b-but I’m your poor, defenseless sister! You wouldn’t leave me out in the cold, would you?” Hazel’s eyes were filled with tears, but these were the fake tears she had perfected after years of being my sister.

I had also had years of being her brother, so I easily identified them as bullshit. I rolled my eyes as she tried to look as meek as possible.

“Weren’t you going to start selling some of your art?” I asked, trying to change the subject.

Her expression dropped, and she touched her fingers together. “You know I don’t have the confidence in my work to try to sell it. I couldn’t do that at all. B-besides! This is about brother taking his schooling seriously!”

She didn’t seem to buy my attempt to derail the conversation. Since mother had skipped college to be with her high school sweetheart, and it had turned out so bad, she had instilled a strong feeling in the both of us that education was important.

“Okay, okay… I’ll study more.” I got fed up with her badgering and acquiesced.

“That’s not good enough!” My sister shot back. “I’ll have to personally tutor you!”

“Didn’t you graduate with C’s and D’s? I asked.

“Th-that’s because… my teachers…” Her expression dropped even more, and I immediately felt bad saying it.

The reason she was so hard on me to do well in high school was because she had a rough time graduating. Because of her beauty, she was harassed a lot in school by the boys. They rarely gave her a break, and as a result, she also earned a reputation. The male teachers would often pass her whether she had learned the material or not, boosting her grades just because she was pleasing to look at. Meanwhile, the female teachers would jealously grade her harsher than other students. When she asked about it, they’d tell her if she studied more rather than played around with boys, she’d have better grades.

Of course, I knew personally that my sister didn’t hang out with boys. She studied harder than anyone. Our mother wanted her to work hard so that she had a better life than mom ended up with. Yet, a combination of soft teachers who didn’t help her learn the material and hard teachers who wanted to give her a hard time meant she didn’t do well. Art was the only thing she was good at, but her art teacher had stolen her prize piece and submitted it as his own. Hazel had never told me this, but I was pretty certain it was because he made advances on her which she rejected.

He had been smart too. He had spent months painting her out to be dishonest around the school, even once tossing out one of her projects and submitting a plagiarized piece instead which had many similarities. In the end, my mother had to beg the school to give her a high school diploma and forgo charging her for academic fraud.

In short, I was glad she was no longer in school, and I hated that she wasn’t able to do what she loved. She liked to paint, but not only was she always lacking supplies, but she also lacked confidence. Any artist she tried to show her work to was more interested in her being art than anything she could make.

“Hazel, it’s okay.” Mom suddenly spoke up. “I trust your brother. He’ll make the right decisions.”

The pair of us glanced over at mom sitting at her table. She had bags under her eyes and a cup of tea in her hands. She looked tired, but she was still looking for a job with a newspaper in her hand, applying from place to place. I knew why she said what she said. She thought I was still upset over her cancer and was just trying to keep the peace as long as possible. Hazel had a sad worried look, while my expression was filled with determination.

“Do you mind if I put something inside you?” I asked abruptly.

There was probably a more tactful way to get around to this, but I just couldn’t looking at Mom.

“B-brother!” Hazel’s eyes widened before she touched her cheeks. “So sudden… my maiden heart isn’t ready…”

“Mom too…” I felt my eye twitching.

“B-b-both? Brother has become an animal!”

Mom raised an eyebrow while ignoring Hazel’s silliness. “What are you on about?”

“I have a health tonic. I think it will help keep us all healthy until mom gets another job.” I gave as close to the truth as I was willing to give.  

I wanted to test it longer since I had only injected it for half a day, but every time I looked at mom, I only felt worried as she looked more tired and haggard. Katarina had vouched for the validity of the drug, and I didn’t seem to have any symptoms. My Perco didn’t mention anything bad regarding my health either. It read healthy under status.

In the end, both girls took the shot without too much fuss. I told them to just trust me, and it was a special remedy I had gotten online which had 5-star ratings. They were suspicious, but mom still felt guilty and Hazel refused to admit she didn’t trust me, so I managed to inject them both.

I got a little bit to eat, although I didn’t feel that hungry, and then washed up, did my homework, and went to bed. When I woke up the next morning, I was sore from head to toe. Every movement felt painful. It felt like I had overworked every muscle I had, and some I didn’t even know were there. Was this the Allmighty at work? Katarina did not warn me enough.

I somehow managed to force myself out of bed, but when mom saw me, she agreed I could take the day off. I ended up crashing and sleeping for half the day. My dreams weren’t the greatest. I kept seeing that man I killed with the machete. However, after a few times waking with a cold sweat, I finally managed to slip deep enough into sleep that I didn’t remember anything else.

I woke up in the afternoon feeling much better. The soreness all but disappeared after another nap. She said it’d still take a week before my strength was stable, but I was probably well enough to get around in this normal world.

Checking the apartment, I found mom was out looking for a job, and Hazel was out painting somewhere. Grabbing my spare backpack, I looked inside to see it filled with jewels. Feeling like if I dumped this out on a counter, I would get in trouble, I partitioned off a few pieces per baggy. I left the apartment and began heading toward the nearest pawn shop.

I realized as I was walking that I reacted to every sound. I kept low, moved from cover to cover, and jumped whenever an animal made a noise. When I tried to take cover as a jogger passed, I realized that I was letting that other world rub off on me. Forcing myself back into the open, I walked down the street with my back straight, feeling uneasy but determined to ignore it.

I finally made it to the pawnshop where I tried to sell jewelry. The old man there was extremely fickle over what he would buy. He also didn’t seem to believe the things I was selling were any more than costume jewelry. I only sold a few pieces to him for $50. I regretted selling even that much. However, I found the second pawn shop wasn’t any better.

“How about you try that gold buyer down the street. No one wants this gaudy stuff. That hasn’t been popular since the 90s.”

Well, that made sense, since this apocalypse started in the 90s, and although there were many differences from my world, the clothing, cars, and buildings all had a 90s aesthetic. I did what he suggested and ended up bringing out most of my jewelry.”

“We don’t buy gems.” He said. “But I’ll buy this gold for $600.”

“This is like $10,000 in jewelry!” I protested.

“We just melt it down, but luckily I’m giving you this much!”

I grumbled but took the money. I didn’t have luck at the pawnshop, so how could I have luck at the gold place? I still had all those gemstones and diamonds though. That’s where the real money was at. That’s what I convinced myself, at least. I finished my journey by stopping at a jeweler.

“We don’t buy diamonds. If you want us to mount them, we can for a fee.”

The number of diamonds I had to sell should have been enough to buy this place, but the woman behind the counter seemed uncaring about that. Mounting these diamonds would cost more than the pawnshop would pay for anything I made with them.

I had only one choice left. I could still sell the gemstones online. That’s actually what I wanted to do in the first place, but those auctions would take nearly a week, and I had no guarantee I’d do better. Feeling defeated, I returned to the apartment.

As I approached the door, I noticed the door was open. My hand went to the handle of the knife Katarina had given me, and then I pushed myself into the apartment. My face fell as I saw my mother and sister at the table. Across from them were a group of five men. They were unfortunately men I recognized. It was the money lender and his goons! I had done everything I could to keep them from dealing with my mother except over the phone. Now, it seemed like they barged into our place, and were now harassing my family.

“Hello, Daniel. You never told me you had such a beautiful family.” The man grinned, showing his bad teeth.

With an ugly expression on my face, I entered the room and closed the door behind me.

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