eyes yet to open – 22.2
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Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Parental browbeating / references to unintentional psychological abuse
Borderline transphobic comment
Dissociation

[collapse]

Pale brick, soft and chewy as undercooked sponge cake. White plastic window frames — too clean, too sterile, with not a hint of lichen or moss to blemish their spotless surfaces. Clear glass backed by lace curtains, like eyes blinded by thick crusts of cataract. A front garden not even worthy of the term, just a patch of paving stones with perfectly interlocked edges, scoured clean so not a single blade of grass might push up between the concrete blocks. Fake terracotta plant pots were placed in the appropriate corners, wilting flowers caged within. Front door — a bland white portal. The brass knocker was only a plastic replica.

Sterile and inoffensive. Both unergonomic and unexciting. A wizened skull, wrapped in paper-thin flesh.

My childhood home.

Semi-detached houses stretched out to the left and right, neat twinned rows facing each other across the sticky tarmac, marching off down the length of the street. Low front walls baked in the cloying heat which still clung to the bricks at the end of this August day. The sun slanted in from the west, sliding toward the horizon. Nobody else was around, the road was empty, all except a single cat sat on one garden wall a few houses down, a great marmalade moggy who watched us with the sleepy, detached gaze of a confident apex predator. A few trees rustled in the passing wind, but the air offered no relief. A hundred meters away the main road buzzed with the sounds of occasional traffic, cars slowing for the little roundabout, engines a distant insect purr crawling through the thickened summer air. Children’s voices carried over the houses, playing in the back gardens of adjacent streets, so much freer than the machine sounds.

Spirit life was everywhere, present in every street and road, upon every pavement and one third of the rooftops. A riot of impossible colour and beastly limbs and fluorescent plumage, of living blobs and ape-faced slugs and looming spectres in the shadows. Ghouls cavorted and played in the roads, while great shaggy hounds slinked through alleyways. Tiny simian goblins perched on rubbish bins, and climbing stick insects wiggled and danced on the slate roof tiles.

The spirits were not quite the same as back in Sharrowford — different sets of morphology, different clades, fashion trends, and balances of population — like we’d stepped from one biome to another, and not realised it until we’d taken the time to catalogue the wildlife. We’d never noticed before. After all, we hadn’t been back here since before we had finally become comfortable with the spirits we’d been seeing for half our lifetime.

Oh, but those spirits in the streets, they parted for us. They made way without complaint.

Perhaps they could sense our darker purpose.

Reading, in Berkshire. Twenty three minutes past six in the evening. Monday, August 5th. On the very street where I and Maisie had grown up. Standing before my parents’ house.

This time I knew exactly why I was so acutely aware of the number on the clock face — because I’d been frantically checking my phone for the last few hours, to the point of obsession. Because this had to be right. Because I’d had to wait.

Were my parents home? Almost certainly. My father’s car was parked a little way along the street, a compact blue hatchback tucked tight against the curb. My mother did not own a car, as she had worked within walking distance since before I and Maisie had been born — but she was never home later than quarter to six.

Nothing felt real.

Reading, the city itself — or the town, to purists — felt less real than when I had visited it in a dream.

We had teleported ourselves here, arrived three streets away, concealed by the rear end of a trio of industrial-sized rubbish bins which I knew were still there; that had felt real, briefly — the concrete beneath our feet, the sudden unleashed sunlight, the scent of the dying of a baking-hot August day. But then we’d stepped out into the streets that we remembered from childhood — no! Streets which were engraved into our heart as little as one year ago. And as we’d walked that inevitable route, reality had fallen away in layers, peeling back to show the truth as a void. And then we’d reached the house itself, the ultimate question standing there in bland brick and clean plastic gutters.

Our breath was all stopped up inside our chest. Our hands were numb. We could barely recall who we really were.

Had my life of the last year even been real? Standing there, about to see my parents in person for the first time in eight months, I felt like I was regressing, before I’d even crossed the threshold. I hadn’t even seen my mother’s face yet, and I felt all my courage draining out of holes in the base of my heart.

In Sharrowford, among my chosen family, I was Heather — abyssal traveller, witch of hyperdimensional mathematics, daughter of the Eye, betrothed to a Princess from beyond reality, speaker to god-things, folded into seven inside myself, beloved of more people than I could ever have imagined. And I was on a quest to rescue my twin sister, who was real, and alive, and whom I would free, whatever I had to do. In Sharrowford I was an adult.

But here, in Reading, I was Heather Morell — a mentally ill child, cowed and quiet, taking my medication like a good little girl.

A wave of slow dissociation passed over me. My tentacles were wrapped around my core in a pitiful self-hug — invisible, reduced back to pneuma-somatic truth, unseen by unknowing eyes. Didn’t want to spook the locals. Didn’t want to upset my parents. Hide who you are, tuck it away so nobody can see. Pretend it’s not real. Tell the right lies. Don’t let them know you’re utterly, completely, unsalvageably insane.

Couldn’t stand it. My stomach hurt. Pure acid.

“Kitten,” purred Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight.

I didn’t — could not — take my eyes off the house. This empty shell. This soul-trap.

“Kitten,” she repeated. “Breathe. You keep forgetting to breathe. Speaking will require breathing.”

I took a deep breath, sighed heavily, and pulled my eyes away from the house.

Sevens stood to my right, breathtakingly beautiful as the bloom of sunset caught her in profile. She wore the Princess Mask and carried her lilac parasol. Every strand of blonde hair was perfectly arrayed. Her face was composed, calm, collected, everything I was not. Her white blouse and yellow skirt had not a single particle of lint or dust upon them, pressed to perfection, even though we had silently wrapped a tentacle around her arm. Her shoes shone in the evening light.

I felt like a little goblin by comparison, wearing jeans and the thin orange hoodie I’d borrowed from Raine — the one with slits cut in the sides, currently secured by velcro, for my fully manifested tentacles to burst through when required. My hair felt greasy and unwashed. My armpits and back were damp with sweat. I was shaking with adrenaline and anxiety.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” we said.

“You can, kitten,” said Seven-Shades-of-Solid-Support. “You must. You will.”

“Don’t— don’t call me kitten in front of my parents. Please. T-that would be very weird. Funny. Maybe even a good distraction. But— but weird. Please don’t. Don’t.”

Sevens nodded. “I will not.”

A tiny pale face peered around Sevens’ hip, framed by straight black hair and thick black lace, with a nasty smirk on thin pale lips — Aym.

“Nah,” Aym rasped. “We can totally call this off. Head home. Do it another day! It can wait, right? Put it off!”

Aym was dressed as close to normal as she could get; she was still head-to-toe in shapeless black lace, with everything but her face and hands concealed inside lightless clothing, but she could easily pass for a human teenager — as long as one did not wonder too long about the unique shape of her eyes, or the strange proportions of her face, or how she moved without the sound of footsteps upon the ground.

We swallowed, and managed to say: “Stop it, Aym. I don’t need more reverse psychology. I’m here, aren’t I?”

Aym hissed between her teeth. “Then why’d you bring me?”

“Moral support of a very specific kind.” Doubt wormed up my throat and emerged as a useless repetition of a question I’d already asked: “Is it really safe for you to be separated from Felicity like this?”

Aym shrugged her bony, petite little shoulders beneath her blanket of black lace. “I’m not really here. I’m still wrapped around Flissy’s neck. Thank Seven-Shades-of-Sunlight for that trick.”

Sevens bowed her head slightly.

Aym carried on, “And you still haven’t explained to me why Sevens is here, anyway. Why don’t you bring your whole complement of dykes and bitches?”

I turned back toward my parents’ house and stared at the front door, the white portal to nowhere, filled with nothing. “Because I need to do this alone.”

Aym snorted. “And you’re not! Sevens is here! I’m here!”

Sevens placed a hand on the top of Aym’s head, smoothing her hair back over her scalp. “Hush.”

Aym hushed instantly.

We’d been over this already, but I repeated it anyway — not for Aym, but for myself, a reminder, to keep me honest.

“Sevens is here to stop me going too far,” I said — and then I stepped over the garden threshold.

Aym was merely rehashing the same argument which had unfolded nearly six hours previously, back in Sharrowford, within the safe and familiar confines of Number 12 Barnslow Drive. She only did so to goad me onward, to distract my thoughts, to keep me focused. That’s how Aym worked on her ‘targets’ — be it me or Felicity — needling and prodding with any underhanded psychological trick, to keep us putting one foot in front of the other.

That’s why I’d brought her. If we’d brought Raine, we would have broken down, and wept, and clawed at our own chest, and begged to not have to do this. And Raine would have relented.

But Raine was not here. Aym was — and so all seven of me presented a united front, and got on with the difficult task of ruining whatever remained of my relationship with my parents.

Ah, but why do it like this? Why not take Raine, and Evelyn, and Lozzie, as backup and support? Why not take Zheng, or Twil, or even Tenny — to show my parents the occult truth beneath the skin of the world? Why not take my friends and allies and lovers? Why do this alone?

That argument had died as a seed, smothered by empathy before it could germinate. Raine did not like that I wanted to go with minimal support — but she understood and respected the need. Evelyn neither comprehended nor accepted; she’d called me obstinate, self-sacrificing, ‘set in my determination to be isolated’. She hadn’t meant any of those things, of course, she was just as scared as I was. In the end she’d pulled out her trump card — would I expect her to face her mother alone, if Loretta Saye was still alive? No, of course not, never. None of us was ever alone. But that was not this. I was not going to duel my parents in a magical battle for survival.

I was not even going to tell them the truth.

I would have the truth from them — not for me, not for healing, not for our family, but for Maisie’s sake alone. And I did not know if I could do that in front of Raine or Evelyn.

But Sevens? She would keep me from going too far. And Aym was here to make sure I went far enough.

In less than an hour the sun would be down, behind the houses and streets of Reading, and the city and spirits alike would be bathed in gloomy dusk. My earlier declaration that I would speak to my parents ‘within the hour’ had been hopelessly optimistic; they were, of course, both at work. Calling my mother and telling her ‘we need to talk’ would likely have ended in inconclusive disaster, and calling ahead to warn them might give them exactly that — too much warning.

So, with the sun dipping below the distant rooftops, we crossed back over the narrow gap between freedom and childhood, with my true nature cloaked and hidden from unknowing eyes, and stood before my parents’ front door.

Sevens clicked up on my right. Aym shuffled to my left.

Numb, quivering, distant from myself. I stared at the door bell. I considered knocking. Three tentacles raised — then we corrected, and raised a hand instead, then let it fall, hesitating, to our side.

Sevens said: “I can press the button for you, kitten.”

“No,” I hissed. I swallowed three times to force my throat open. “I … I need to be ruthless. Sevens, I need to be ruthless. I … how do I do this? I feel like I’m being infantilised just standing here.”

“Look,” Sevens purred.

“At what?” I hissed.

“At yourself. Look down at yourselves, kitten.”

We understood exactly what Sevens meant, but it barely helped. We looked down at our tentacles, invisible to normal humans right then, pulsing their slow throb of rainbow light against chest and belly. The truth, but unseen. Slowly, painfully, we uncoiled them. We opened up, we spread our limbs. We wrapped one — top right — around my right arm. We — she and I, me and me, Heather and Heather — reached out together and pressed the door bell.

Ding-dong! came a merry little chime from deep inside the house.

Deep breaths, Heather. Deep breaths. Stand up straight — mum dislikes when you slouch. Fix your hair one last time. Hands where everybody can see them, tentacles where nobody could. Sevens is ready. Aym is there to run weird and difficult interference. Unclench your heart, unclench your jaw. Breathe! Breathe. Breathe.

Footsteps approached the other side of the door, heavy and solid. Not dad.

My mother answered the bell. The door swung inward.

I’m not sure from where exactly I get my own petite build, but it isn’t from my mum; Samantha Rosemary Morell is both big-boned and rather round, and absolutely comfortable with both those physical facts. Or perhaps I’m incorrect. Perhaps when she was younger my mother was built more like myself — I don’t have any pictures of her as a teenager or in her early twenties — and when I get older I’ll pack on some weight and become more like her. She has mousey hair which had never quite forgotten the fashion trends of the 1980s, framing a pinched and curious face, her lips always slightly compressed by an unspoken question or unexpressed disapproval. On that evening she hadn’t been home from work for long — she was still wearing her bank clerk’s shirt, her thin cardigan, and her sensible trousers. We shared the same eyes, but that was about all.

For a split second my mother looked like a total stranger, framed by the off-cream paint of the tiny entranceway — and by the two spirits hanging from the ceiling, suspended in the air by lizard-tails and oozing down the walls; a dozen gooey-soft eyes turned to stare at me in unison. Then the spirits scurried off, fleeing into the depths of the house, spooked by the arrival of Homo Abyssus.

But my mother’s eyes did not recognise me, did not recognise what was standing in front of her as her daughter, even though she could not see a hint of my tentacled truth.

Then she lit up with a gasp, with shock and surprise. Not displeased, just bamboozled.

“Heather?!”

“Hello, mum,” I said. My heart was going too fast. “Surprise.”

My mother did what came naturally, she leaned forward and gave me a hug, a quick reaction, the same way she always had. I felt all my ruthless determination crumbling away between my fingers as I awkwardly returned the gesture.

But then she pulled back and looked me up and down, her face creased with bewildered concern.

“H-Heather, what are you— how—” The gears caught and locked inside her head. Quick eyes flicked across Sevens and Aym, then back to me. She frowned, craggy and serious. She reached out and placed a familiar, soft hand on my shoulder. I moved my invisible tentacles out of the way and tried not to pull back. “Did something happen? Are you alright? What are you doing here? What— what—”

“Mum, I’m fine,” I said, and did my best to smile — but she saw right through that. Same as she always had. “I’ve popped down for a little visit, that’s all.”

My mother boggled at me. There was the pause — and then the storm: “Popped down for a little visit?!” she echoed. “Heather, we haven’t heard from you in weeks! I’ve left three messages on your mobile phone. And yes, that lovely young lady you’re with, Raine, she did answer once, but that’s hardly enough! Heather, you were supposed to come visit back in Easter! Your father and I have been joking that you’ve decided to never come back!”

“I’m sorry, Mum. But I’m here right now, I—”

“And what exactly are you doing here? Something is clearly very wrong.” She tutted. “I can tell, you know that. You know how you get all stiff and formal whenever something is terribly wrong. I can see it written right on your face. And it’s what, a three and a half hour train journey from Sharrowford to Reading? You just hopped on the train, in the evening, on a whim, to visit your dear old parents?” She tutted again, then frowned sharper, and lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Are you off your medication?”

“Mum!” I almost snapped. “I—”

“And who are these two?” She glanced at Sevens and Aym again. “Friends of yours? Where’s your girlfriend, Raine? Does she know you’re here? You’re not even carrying a backpack or anything! Did you come empty-handed? I can’t believe this. I can’t. What’s wrong?”

Of course she didn’t leave me time to answer any of those. They weren’t really questions; they were to establish that I had broken the patterns of normality, done something ‘weird’ and unexpected. My guts turned to acid. Three tentacles twitched upward as if readying to smash my mother across the face — though we never would. We never would. Would we?

Seven-Shades-of-Softest-Touch pressed her fingertips against the small of my back.

Ruthlessness solidified in my heart.

“Mum, this is Aym,” I gestured to my left with a smile, speaking with the most polite good-girl tones I could muster. Then the other side: “And this is Sevens. They’re friends of mine, from university. They wanted to come with me, as support.”

My mother’s frown took on that unique cast which told me she was trying to read volumes in the noise of the wind and the rain.

“Support?” she said. “Whatever for?”

Sevens opened her lips with a soft click. “Good evening, Mrs Morell,” she said with perfect elocution. “I do apologise for interrupting your day. Your daughter is a very good friend of mine, a very close friend. It is a delight to meet you.”

My mother boggled at Sevens even harder than she’d boggled at me. Neither of my parents were ardent royalists, but something in Sevens’ tone had sounded undeniably aristocratic.

“Yeah, hi,” went Aym. She was trying to hide in the lengthening shadows of early dusk.

My mother poked her head further out of the door and looked left and right, a terrible pantomime of checking for eavesdropping — because that was exactly what she was doing: making sure that old Mr Gunther next door did not overhear anything awkward or strange-sounding, that the Jobbines down the street did not witness anything ‘abnormal’ outside our very own front door, that Susan and Patty across the road didn’t see me throwing a fit or talking to the air or drooling down myself.

As far as my mother was concerned, her mentally ill daughter had shown up on her doorstep, empty-handed and unplanned, with a pair of women she’d never seen before. Her crazy little cuckoo had flown home.

Then she said in a low whisper, as if anybody cared: “You haven’t broken up with Raine, have you? I rather liked the girl, she seemed very sensible, very smart, very—”

“Mum, no!” I snapped.

My mother winced and glanced left and right again. “Then what is this—”

“We need to talk,” I said. Sweat was running all down my back, my face was going red, my skin was itching all over. “I have something I need to talk to you and dad about. In person. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’ve come.”

My mother boggled at me again, but then I saw the gears catch a second time, spinning to life inside her head. She tried to hide it the same way she always had, as if not allowing it to show on her face would make up for her words — ‘Remember to take your medication in the morning,’ ‘It’s probably something you imagined,’, ‘You know how you get, Heather.’

Her poor little girl was having another episode.

That helped. I held hard to ruthlessness.

“Now,” I said with a little huff — and oh, I realised, I got that habit right from her, didn’t I? The huff, the turn of the head, the soft little click of my tongue. It was all her, all my mother. I faltered, faintly horrified. “May we come indoors, are you going to make me stand on the doorstep?”

My mother revived. “Oh, oh! Yes, yes, do come on in.” She stepped back to admit us. “Gosh, of course, Heather. Of course you can come inside, don’t be daft. This is your home too.”

My home too?

It did not feel that way. Not anymore.

My mother made a big fuss of inviting Aym and Sevens inside as well: “Any friend of Heather’s is very welcome. Come on inside, I promise we’re all very normal here. You’re both Heather’s classmates at university, then? Aym, that’s an … interesting … dress.” She struggled, eyes sliding off Aym as we all shuffled into the tiny entranceway. “And … Sevens, was it?” My mother said the name so very slowly, like it didn’t make sense. “Gosh, you’re both very smart. You must feel a bit overdressed slumming it around with our Heather!” My mother let out that grating laugh, the one she always forced out when she was trying to apologise for me without sounding like she was doing so.

I bristled. I couldn’t help it. But Sevens put a quiet hand on the small of my back again.

Sevens said: “Heather is always immaculately dressed, in my humble opinion.”

My mother blinked several times. Sevens’ tone of aristocratic superiority left no room for argument; my mother had no idea what to make of it. I saw Aym grinning, her face hidden just beyond my mother’s sight.

“Well!” my mother recovered. “Well, certainly. Of course.”

She got the front door closed and locked once again; as she did, I saw several spirit-life eye-stalks peer around the door frame. They quickly whipped back out of sight when we turned a tentacle-tip toward them. The locals were growing curious now their wayward daughter had returned, festooned with weapons and marvels of hidden flesh. But we weren’t here to play with the wildlife.

“Well then,” my mother said. “Come on through, come on through. Shoes off on the mat please, dears. Heather, your father’s in the sitting room, you really must sit down and—”

My mother rattled on and on, flipping between politeness and hurrying us onward, adjusting her cardigan with nervous hands, flapping about left and right. Sevens stepped out of her boots without needing to unlace them, bend down, or exert herself in any fashion at all — they simply fell from her feet, leaving behind the cream-yellow of her stockings. Whatever was going on under Aym’s dress did not require shoes, and my mother was too mundane to notice that. I awkwardly wriggled out of my trainers.

We were herded out of the tiny entrance hallway, past the foot of the stairs, and into the sitting room.

My parents’ taste in internal décor was far from perfect, but then again whose ever is, except for one’s own? Thick cream carpets, fake leather sofa, big armchairs either side, all pointed at a respectably large television. An IKEA bookcase stood in one corner, stuffed with the various paperbacks my mother liked to read, shoulder to shoulder with my father’s science fiction magazines. An old bricked-up fireplace dominated one wall, a retired relic from the 1950s, though the mantelpiece still served as good place for various knick-knacks — a statuette of a bear, a row of decorative mugs, and three pictures of me as a child and a teenager, in some of my most presentable moments.

Plain white skirting boards. Floral wallpaper in soft yellow and rose. Stools for putting one’s feet up. A pair of those long-necked standing lamps stood in opposite corners, to replace the ceiling lights when one wanted to watch television in the evenings. They still had the combination DVD-and-VHS player beneath the TV, the very same one they’d had for the last twelve years, all shiny buttons and a big black opening for the anachronistic tapes. Memories floated to the surface of my mind, of Maisie and I mucking about with old tapes, making the machine eat them and spit them out over and over.

There was nothing special about my parents’ sitting room, not really. It was neither a horror of modernity stripped of all human warmth, nor a comfortable and cosy throwback. It was just another sitting room in a semi-detached house in the middle of suburban Reading.

Three spirits were in residence: a prismatic purple blob was clinging to the big window which looked out on the cramped back garden, eyes forming and melting in its surface; something like a massive bipedal hound was hunched in a corner, all grey and black and dripping with ichor; and in the doorway to the kitchen was a huge humped mound of crimson flesh, toothed maw hanging open on a pitch black gullet, like some kind of filter feeder in the deep ocean.

The window-blob and the lurking hound fled as soon as I stepped into the room, like tiny crustaceans scurrying for the safety of a hole in the rocks before the beak of a squid. The blob phased through the window and rose like a bunch of balloons. The hound flinched and scrambled away on skittering claws, tail tucked between its legs.

The flesh-lump in the kitchen doorway did not move, however. I recognised it from my childhood. That spirit had often been present in the house, just sitting there in the doorways or the middle of a room, scaring me half to death, trapping me in parts of the house for hours on end with sheer childhood terror.

We stared at it, all seven of us, all tentacles pointing.

We knew it had never meant harm. Few spirits did, we suspected. But we needed it to move, to pay attention, to do as we said. We could not afford the fear, could not afford to slip back into old childhood patterns.

The crimson flesh-lump shuffled backward, like a tired old dog retreating to his bed. It peered around the kitchen doorway, but now the way was clear. I sighed and nodded a silent thank you.

“It’s Heather!” my mother was saying. “And she’s with friends. She just turned up! Just right there on the doorstep!”

“Yes, I heard,” said my father, gentle and soft. “Hello, love. You alright?”

My dad was sitting in his favourite spot, the left hand side of the sofa, with his feet up on a stool. He’d probably been home for a while, because he was already wearing his ‘lounge longs’ — that was his own private term for a pair of pajama bottoms — and a t-shirt, with no trace of his work clothes, the grime and dirt of the day, or even any tiredness, beyond a little slackness around his eyes. My father was a man of exacting precision; home from work meant a shower before he even touched anything. And now there he was, sitting in his usual spot, his book placed neatly to one side with a bookmark between the pages. He’d had the television on as well, with the sound muted, but the first thing he did was pick up the remote and turn it off. I had his full attention.

If I had inherited little of my build from my mother, I had received somewhat more from my father: Gregory Morell was short, stocky, compact, and gentle as a golden retriever. Big green eyes in a smiling, hangdog, weathered face. His hair had been greying and thinning long before Maisie had been taken, but he didn’t bother with dye or a comb-over, he just let it sit how it wanted. He’d been working on an equally grey moustache for a while, and I wasn’t sure if it suited him.

“Hi, dad,” we said. “I’m alright, yes. I’m not in trouble or anything. No, don’t get up, let me … ”

I leaned down to give my dad a hug, but he stood up anyway. He clapped me on the back and I tried not to touch him with my tentacles. When we let go he eased back into his seat, eyes roving over myself, over Aym and Sevens, and then to my mother, who was standing awkwardly, waiting for me to resume.

“Uh,” I stumbled for a moment. “Dad, this is Sevens, and this is Aym. They’re friends of mine from university.”

“Oh, mm!” My dad pulled a moustached smile. “Nice to meet you both, nice to meet you. Friends of Heather, eh? You all going to be staying the night? Suppose it’s a bit late for a return train now, hmm?” He blinked several times at Aym. I was certain he wasn’t really seeing her for what she was. He said: “Gosh, that’s a full-on goth getup right there. Did you come on the train like that? Well, well, I’m impressed. Not often you see that these days.”

Aym flashed him a smile; I willed her not to say anything.

He cast around at the two chairs and the remaining spot next to him on the sofa. “Ooh er, I don’t know if there’s enough room for everyone to sit. Sammy,” he said to my mother. “We’ll have to fetch a chair from the kitchen.”

My mother pulled a big nasty wince. She pressed her hands together as if praying; I knew for a solid fact that neither of my parents was the least bit religious. “Greg, please, I do not think that is the most important concern at this juncture.”

“Nonsense,” my dad said with a very mouthy frown. “We shouldn’t leave guests standing around on—”

“Gregory!” my mother repeated.

Sevens cleared her throat gently. “It is quite alright, Mister Morell. It is a pleasure to meet you as well. Heather has been very complimentary about her upbringing. She has told me very much.” Seven-Shades-of-Sharp-Rebuke smiled as thin as an ice-rimed razor blade.

If my father understood the sarcasm, he didn’t show it — which meant that he did not understand it. He smiled. “Oh, thank you, young lady. Sevens,” he said her name, frowning a little. “Sevens. Sevens. You know, I think I’ve heard that name before. Forgive me if I get this incorrect, no offense meant, I’m genuinely very curious, but is that … Corsican?”

Sevens corrected him: “Carcosan.”

My dad smiled, always eager to learn something new. “Ah!” he said. But then came the uncomprehending frown. “Carsocan … Carcosan … is that on the south coast of France? No, no, I’m getting my geography mixed up.”

“Dad,” I said. “Please. It’s very polite of you, but … ”

My father cleared his throat awkwardly. His smile was more nervous than I’d realised. “Yes, yes of course. You’ve got things to talk about. On a surprise flying visit. With no luggage. Your mother’s got a point, you know. My heart’s going like the clappers, my girl.” My dad tapped his chest, trying to make a joke of it. “What’s wrong? Just tell us, please. Whatever it is, we’re here for you.”

My throat almost closed up at that. We’re here for you — were they really? My mother was infantilising, but she always meant well. My father was gentle and kind and loved his daughter, but he couldn’t see what we could. They were not going to like a single word of this.

“Yes,” I said, shaking a little. “I need to ask you both a question, I—”

My mother interrupted: “You’re not pregnant, are you?”

All my courage curdled into confused disgust. I gave my mother a look like she was insane.

“Don’t give me a look like that!” she snapped. “It’s a perfectly reasonable question!”

“Mother, it is not a reasonable question!” I snapped back. “I’m a lesbian! I sleep with women! You know I’m a lesbian!”

My mother blinked several times in frank surprise, her head recoiling like a turtle who couldn’t quite return to her shell; I’d never spoken to her like that before. I half-expected her to retort with something like, ‘Don’t take that tone with me, young lady,’ but then she escalated far beyond my wildest expectations.

“It … it is a reasonable question,” she said, stiff and huffy. “Raine … Raine could be … a trans woman.”

I boggled at her. Sevens cleared her throat. Aym slid around behind us, neatly out of sight.

“Mother,” I said. “Excuse me?”

My mother huffed and hurrumphed and couldn’t quite meet my eyes. She knew she’d put her foot right down her own throat, but she scrambled to do damage control before she digested her own toes. “I’m not completely ignorant about the modern world,” she said. “You probably think of me as some fuddy-duddy old lady, but I consider it important to be well-informed. You can’t understand anything if you don’t read up on things! And … well … trans women who still have all the … the … ‘original equipment’—”

“Mum!” I snapped.

My mother threw her hands into the air. “All I’m saying is that it is biologically possible! If you didn’t take precautions! So it is a reasonable question!”

“Raine is not trans, and if she was it would not be any of your business. I am not pregnant.” We were blushing by then, bright red with bizarre indignation. “Will you sit down?” I huffed, losing my temper. “Sit down and listen to me. For pity’s sake. Just, listen. For once. Listen.”

My mother adopted that old expression, that pitying frown which said poor little Heather is over-reacting. Her voice softened, went gentle and coaxing, tinged with passive-aggressive rebuke. “Heather, dear, I am only asking—”

“Ahem,” my father said out loud. “Samantha, I think you went over the line with that one.”

My mother tutted. “Oh, yes, please, do take her side with this.”

My father sighed. “I assumed we were both on her side.”

That shamed my mother hard enough to get her to do as I had asked; she adjusted her cardigan, huffed in several different directions, and then finally sat down in one of the armchairs, rather than next to my father on the sofa.

Had my dad seen the lone tentacle which had risen from our side? Middle-Left, burning with shame and frustration, eager to just belt my mother around the face with an invisible limb, to shove her nose in the truth and leave her confused and reeling and—

No. No, we were not going to do that. I had promised myself that I was not going to hurt them — at least no more than absolutely necessary. Sevens gave me a sidelong look; she knew what I was thinking as I stood there, taking deep breaths, trying to hold myself back from something I would regret. I just nodded once. Swallowed. Flexed my hands.

This was not about healing. This was not about proving anything to them, or bringing them Into The Know, or showing them the eldritch truth of reality. All of those things could wait. All of those things would distract from rescuing my sister.

This was about information.

Ruthlessness did not mean cruelty. It meant focus.

“Heather,” my dad said gently, “will you sit down as well? We can fetch chairs for your friends, too.”

“No, thank you,” we said. “For this I want to stand.”

Sevens said: “I am quite alright. Thank you very much, Mister Morell.”

Aym ‘sat’ in mid-air, one of her usual tricks, her black lace dress flowing downward in a shadowy waterfall to pool upon the floor. My parents didn’t comment on that, though my dad frowned at her for just a second, as if part of his mind had noticed the physical impossibility. But then he dismissed it as unimportant and paid his full attention to me again.

If I’d ever had any doubts that my parents were not In The Know, not exposed to magic, then I had finally seen enough to convince me that they had no idea.

My parents watched me, waiting for me to speak. My mother seemed ready to argue. My father’s face was creased with concern. I had not seen either of them in the flesh since Christmas, but that seemed like a lifetime ago. I had changed so much in the last eight months — but not on the outside, not without the blessing of pneuma-somatic sight. My mum and dad saw only one seventh of what I was; they saw their little girl, still damaged and vulnerable and mentally ill.

We took a deep breath, and we began.

“I need to ask both of you a question,” we said. “And I need you to tell me the absolute truth, no matter what damage you believe the answer might do to me.”

“Heather,” my mother said, oh so gentle and reasonable. “We’ve always told you the truth. Always. We don’t lie.”

I restrained a sigh. “I don’t want to believe that you’ve ever lied to me about anything. But I still need to ask. You may have withheld information, without intending to harm me.”

My dad chewed on his lower lip, which made it look like he was chewing on his moustache. “Heather, what is this about?”

“Maisie,” I said.

My mother gazed upon me in abject, frozen horror, then let out a shuddering sigh, closed her eyes, and pressed her lips together. My father pulled a smile that was not a smile, a half-lopsided wince of compressed pain.

I had not spoken my twin sister’s name in front of my parents since I was twelve years old. A taboo, unbreakable on pain of return to the mental hospital, on pain of being looked at like I was not in control of myself, on pain of being treated like a confused animal. Maisie, hidden away, not to be named, not even to be thought.

But she was not dead. She was real, and alive, and here she was, screaming back out of history on my words. Not gone, mother! Never forgotten!

“Heather,” my mother said very quietly. “You know you’re not supposed to say that name.”

“Your mother’s right,” dad joined in, his voice cracking with worry. “I know you’re better than you used to be, but you really shouldn’t even think about your imaginary childhood friend. It’s not safe for you. You know that, love.”

Their words washed over us like diluted acid; we had long since grown skin thick and toughened against this unintentional bile. We waited, unsmiling, stretching our invisible tentacles outward to either side. Seven-Shades-of-Silent-Support placed a hand on the small of our back, yet again. Aym had slid away somewhere into the shadows, mortified or embarrassed; this was far beyond her area of expertise.

A strange, alchemical calm settled inside my chest and belly, cool and soft and glowing. I had expected to cry, but I only felt numb with anger, with a decade of frustration, of misled lies, of missed years and missed opportunities, of missing my twin sister. Bitterness fell away. Only truth remained.

“Maisie was real,” I said, speaking to the wall above my parents’ heads.

My mother, shrill and tight: “Heather—”

My father spoke over her, “Dear—”

Aym interrupted in an unleashed voice of rusty nails and broken needles, speaking from the shadows: “Listen to her, you cretins!”

They both flinched, confused, wrong-footed. My father blinked at Aym, screwing up his eyes twice. My mother shook her head like a horse bothered by a fly.

“Maisie was real,” I repeated. “And Maisie is still real. She was not my imaginary friend. She is my twin sister, your other daughter. Ten years ago — almost eleven years ago now — I did not have a breakdown, or a schizophrenic episode, or a series of hallucinations, or anything like that. Maisie and I were kidnapped by an alien god from Outside reality. I escaped. She did not. She is still out there. Something about that process erased the physical proof and relevant memories of everybody who knew she ever existed. Except for me. That is the truth.”

We let out a long, slow, shaking breath. We felt numb and flushed both at the same time.

Clean at last. We blinked away the gloss of tears.

My parents were not taking this well. Their beloved daughter had gone crackers again. My father was frowning with scrunch-eyed concern, like he’d just heard a terminal diagnosis. My mother was pinch-lipped and tight-faced, almost scowling at me, as if I had done a wee on the carpet.

She said, in a slow and measured voice, “Heather, are you taking your medication?”

“Mother, I haven’t been taking my medication for a very long time, because it didn’t ever work. It never, ever, ever made the ‘hallucinations’ or the dreams go away, because they were not hallucinations or dreams. I keep seeing the things I see because they are real.”

My mother huffed, screwed her eyes shut again, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “I knew we shouldn’t have let her go off to university.”

My father interrupted before I could get angry: “Samantha, that wasn’t our choice to make. It was Heather’s.”

“And look! She’s relapsed! Listen to her! What is this?!”

My father sighed and made a placating gesture toward my mum. Then he looked at me, full of disquiet. “Heather. Heather, you know we both love you very much. You’re … you’re having another … you … ”

We just stared back, keeping control. “I’m what?” we said with gentle challenge.

My father frowned harder — with confusion. “Well,” he said slowly. “I was going to say you’re having another episode. That you’re unwell, and we we want to help, but … ”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. “But what?”

My mother stared at him, horrified. “Gregory?”

“I don’t know,” my father said. He shook his head and stroked his moustache. “You don’t seem the same, Heather. Not like last time. Not like any of the previous times.”

“Gregory,” my mother warned, her tone hardening.

My father gestured at me. “Sammy, look at her. I’ve never seen her so confident.”

My mother gaped at him. “Gregory, you cannot possibly believe all that.” She lowered her voice to a hiss, as if I was not right there and well within earshot. “It’s the same thing the doctors got out of her when she was little! It’s the same old delusion! Stop feeding it!”

“I am standing right here, you know?” I said. “I can hear you.”

My mother turned dark eyes on me again. “Of course you can hear us, dear. What are we supposed to say? What— we— we have to get you back on your medication, dear. This is— just listen to yourself! Listen to your—”

“I want you to answer a question,” I said, raising my voice. “That’s all you need to do.”

My mother almost shouted: “What question!?”

“Samantha,” my father said. “Let her—”

“What question?! What question?!” my mother repeated. “None of this makes any sense, what possible question could she have—”

“Talk to me, mother,” I said, my voice quivering. “I am right here.”

My mother just scowled at me.

“I want you to answer a question,” we said. “And I don’t care if you think it will hurt me. I need you to tell the truth, because only the truth is going to help me fix this. Even if you don’t believe me — and I know you don’t believe me — just humour me. I need an answer. That is the best thing you can both do, right now, to help your daughter. That would be me, by the way.”

My father said: “What’s the question, sweetheart?”

I swallowed. The numbness seemed to fall away inside me, like sunburnt skin peeling from clean flesh, suddenly raw and red. Why did that numbness ebb now? Because here was the moment of truth? Because I was about to discover how badly my parents had lied to me?

“Prior to my first ever ‘episode’,” I said, “In the day, weeks, and even months before that, did anything strange happen?”

“Strange?” my father echoed.

“Oh, oh I cannot believe this,” my mother started to pant, rocking gently in her chair, tears rolling down her cheeks. “She’s gone full paranoid. Gregory, we have to do something. We have to call— take her to the— I don’t know! She’s— she’s clearly unwell! Heather, dear, we love you, but this is nonsense! You never had a sister! You never did! I should know! I gave birth to you!”

“Anything at all,” I said to my father. My voice was shaking now. My tentacles wanted to coil around our middle, hug ourselves still. “I don’t know what it might have been. Unexplained phenomena. Odd sights. Anything. Literally anything. Animals indoors. A weird letter. Even a dream. Visits from strange people, or—”

My father’s eyebrows twitched. He tried to hide the reaction, but he could not.

My eyes went wide. My tentacles went wild, stiff and arched. My blood ran cold.

“Dad!” I snapped. “Dad, you do remember something. I saw that on your face!”

“Heather!” my mother wailed. “Stop this!”

“I saw it on your face! Dad! Dad, don’t lie to me! There was something! Tell me!”

My dad raised both his hands in surrender. “There was nothing. Nothing happened before your very first breakdown. Nothing before. I promise, sweetheart. I am not lying to you.”

“ … and after?” I said.

My mother whirled on my dad, sobbing openly. “Gregory, do not! Don’t! She’s sick! She’s ill! Don’t give her any more of this poison! Please!”

“Samantha, she is only asking for the whole truth—”

“What truth?! Nothing happened! She’s mentally ill!”

“—and I only think it’s fair that we tell her about—”

“Stop!”

“—the strange lady,” my dad finished.

I went completely and utterly still, inside and out. Every hair on my body stood on end. We felt my entire world turn upside down. My blood was ice. My guts iron. My bio-reactor a lump of dead flesh. Our brains were soup, our limbs rubber. My tentacles were ready to turn themselves to razor blades and pull down the walls of reality.

“Strange lady?” I echoed, in barely a whisper.

My father wet his lips. “After the first few months of taking you to the doctors—”

“I will not have this!” my mother roared and shot to her feet. Tears streaming down her face, she blazed at all of us. “Gregory, this is nothing but irresponsible! Her treatment plan was always clear. Never, ever, ever feed the delusions! We are not having this discussion, I will not allow you to harm our daughter!” She whirled on me and Sevens and Aym. “And you — you two, I don’t even know who you are, but you’ve done irreparable harm! Get out, both of you! Heather, you are not going back to Sharrowford, or university, not tonight. We are calling the hospital. That is final.”

My mother expected me to recoil. To shut my mouth. To nod my head. To be a good little girl and take my medicine.

“Mother,” I said, calmer than I had ever felt before. “You can’t make us do anything.”

She faltered and flustered for a moment, then rallied: “Just because you’re an adult doesn’t mean you’re not—”

“No,” we sighed. “We mean you cannot make us do anything. Don’t make us prove it.”

My mother boggled at me, tears dried on her cheeks, utterly lost.

My father leaned back on the sofa and frowned. He drew a hand across his face.

My mother spoke again, her tone gone treacle-thick and sickly-sweet: “Heather, Heather we both love you very much, but you are ill, you are delusional, you need help.”

“Mm,” my father grunted — and I knew that was agreement with my mother, not with me. “Maybe we should call the hospital. Heather, I’ll tell you about the strange lady, but first will you consent to—”

I lost my temper.

Sevens almost got there first, she almost managed to say no. She even had an emergency lemon, slipped to her earlier by Praem’s secret hands, ready to peel and stuff in my mouth at the first sign of serious trouble. But I would have spat it out just to hiss at the top of my lungs. Aym began to rasp a warning, because even she knew where this was going. But I wasn’t about to listen to her either.

We unrolled our tentacles and spread them wide; we dipped a fingertip into the machinery of the Eye, slick and dark and black and tarry, to flick that single unseen value from a zero to a one.

And then we showed our parents who and what we really were.

Announcement

Our little squid just could not resist.

Wow! Well, it sure was a relief to finally get Heather's parents on screen after all this time. I've been looking forward to this for a while. This chapter and the next have been a hell of a long time coming; this whole sequence has been planned allllll the way since the start of the story (which, to be fair, applies to many scenes in Katalepsis so far). Heather is ... holding her own, but perhaps not in the way she wanted. Her mother is difficult, her father is trying his best, but she's gotta go full squid again. Perhaps it was the only way.

I have a little treat for you this week! For any readers who do not frequent the Katalepsis discord, here are two delightful emotes, of Lozzie giggling, and Lozzie patting Tenny on the head, both created by skaiandestiny over on the discord server! I love these so much, I just had to share them with more readers. Thank you skaian!

If you want more Katalepsis right away, you can get it by:

Subscribing to the Patreon!

All Patrons get access to two chapters ahead! No matter what level you subscribe at! That's about 20k words at the moment. The more support I get through Patreon, the more time I can dedicate to writing, and the less chance of having to slow down the story or get interrupted by other responsibilities. The generous and kind support of Patrons and readers is what makes all this possible in the first place, I would literally not be able to do this without you; thank you all so very much! You can also:

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Next week, Heather shows the truth, and demands it too. She will have answers, no matter the cost.

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