eyes yet to open – 22.3
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Announcement

Content Warnings:

Spoiler

Parental browbeating / references to unintentional psychological abuse (same as previous chapter)
Unreality/gaslighting/memory corruption
Grief and loss

[collapse]

Truth-wrought abyssal flesh flowered from my flanks and burst through the concealed velcro slits in the sides of my borrowed hoodie.

Sixfold and strobing, glossy-smooth and gleaming-pale, strong with muscle, thick with chromatophores, weaving layers of armour for my heart and soul. They — us, we, I, all in one and one as all — flared with a dark rainbow umbra of void-born bioluminescence. We soaked the sitting room in unnameable colours, washing the walls with neon pink, drenching the sofa in mustard gas yellow, turning the carpet filthy with toxic purples and mould-bright oranges and danger-warning reds — and dyeing my parents’ faces with the grey-pale of wordless shock. Six beautiful, undeniable, unfalsifiable limbs from beyond the human body-plan unfurled from my sides, to violate both the stagnant, stale air of the house in which I had grown up, and the sclerotic structures of my parents’ minds.

My mother stumbled away from us. All her patronising, careworn anger vanished like flash-boiled steam, replaced with open-mouthed shock. She collapsed into her chair, panting for breath, a hand clutching at her heart. My father stared with the awestruck eyes of a child gazing upon the sea for the first time, the waves roused to violence beneath a lightning storm, with electricity playing over the water’s surface. His moustache had gone droopy.

Not enough! Not nearly enough!

We lifted ourselves upward on three tentacles until our feet left the ground. With all our body weight raised and suspended via three muscular coils braced against the carpet, we looked down upon our parents. Our eyes were full of tears, our face blazing with heat, our heart soaring with vindication.

Catharsis was like a drug, surging through our veins, throbbing inside our head, churning in our belly — no doubt spiced and catalysed by the lingering buzz of brain-math pain crackling across our nervous system and distributed neural tissue.

I had dreamed of this moment during my darkest hours of isolation in Cygnet Children’s Hospital, on those long and lonely nights curled up beneath my bedsheets, to escape the horrors which were visible to only my altered eyes, while I’d sobbed my twin’s name into a cold pillow. I had dreamed of looking down on the doctors and scattering them like bowling pins, of rising above my parents and screaming in their faces: you’re wrong!

Maisie is real! I have proof! I love her and she’s missing and gone and nobody will pay attention or believe me and you’re all leaving her behind!

We longed to blossom further, to flower and fruit, to surrender our biology to the transformative process, to show our parents the very limits of the truth. We ached to sharpen our teeth and elongate our tongue, to decorate our skin with flowing colours in a language no human eyes could read, to blink with three sets of lids and twist our throat into a shape for words not meant for human ears. We quivered and panted with biological potential, with the budding seed of a bladed tail, with the promise of steel-shod bones and razor-sharp fingernails. We wanted to hiss, to screech, to unfold and unfurl until we were large enough to pull reality down upon the human mind, until we might see my parents as nothing but ugly lumps of living meat twisted into glugging chemical factories, and force them to look upon the shameless and incandescent truth.

But we didn’t.

Because then we would have been there all night.

We kept a ruthless hand on our urges. In the end this was not about breaking my parents, or about satisfying my own needs, or even about bringing us all together, to heal at long last, to reconcile this chasm between us. No, none of those things mattered, not by comparison.

This was about Maisie, and the information I required in order to bring her home.

We made do with one tiny sliver of all the things we wished to say, to express all that we felt.

“Go ahead, mother,” I said. “Tell me I’m insane.”

My mother did not tell me anything. She whimpered.

That whimper was enough to bring me down — both metaphorically and literally. We did not wish to actually hurt our parents, to scream and shout and shove their noses in the truth; we’d exercised that urge once before, against Natalie’s parents, to bring them Into The Know for the sake of their daughter’s future. We had indulged in all the strongest cocktails of bitterness and revenge, and told ourselves we had no other choice. But then Sevens had shown us how those poisons ate away at our own guts in equal measure, metabolising our own soul into rot. We had not quite exorcised those feelings — we suspected that we never could — but we didn’t truly wish to see our parents’ minds broken on the rack of reality, with all the attendant risks.

We lowered ourselves back to the floor, easing downward with our tentacles until our feet pressed into the plush fabric of the carpet. I was panting, shivering, shaking all over, coated with a sudden sheen of cold sweat. One by one we — us Heathers — all agreed to lower the intensity of our strobing rainbow brilliance. We dialled it down until it no longer overwhelmed the lights in the sitting room.

A lemon appeared in front of my face, held in a pale hand, attached to a very lovely arm, inside the perfectly pressed clean white sleeve of a crisp blouse.

“For you,” Sevens murmured.

I glanced at her in surprise, blinking and confused; she’d managed to stand by my side all throughout that absurd threat display. We suddenly felt terribly embarrassed.

“I— hic,” hiccuped. “But—”

“Eat,” said Seven-Shades-of-Essential-Aide.

We accepted the lemon with two tentacles and began flaying the skin, then plucking out morsels of sharp, yellowy flesh. The first bite stilled our mind. The second scrap calmed our belly. The third made us sigh. We needed that.

My parents were just staring, awestruck and silent. My mother was half-recoiled in her chair, as if trying to sink into the cushions. My father’s amazement was beginning to ebb, the flavour of his shock changed by the curious frown on his forehead.

“Heather,” my father said slowly, as if not believing his own voice could function in this aura of unreality. “What … what exactly are we … looking at here?”

I swallowed another chunk of lemon. Much better.

“The truth,” we said. We shrugged — with two shoulders and all the tentacles not currently occupied in de-fleshing a lemon. “We didn’t want to show you … ” I trailed off and smiled, self-conscious and melancholy. “Well, no, that’s a lie, of course we wanted to show you. We just didn’t want to hurt you, either of you. But the denial was getting too much. This is the truth.”

My father’s frown deepened. His eyes ran across my tentacles, narrowing, blinking, squinting with the cognitive effort of overcoming his own world-view. He stroked his moustache as if puzzling over a crossword.

“And … what,” he tried, then cleared his throat and screwed up his eyes. When he opened them again, I had not stopped existing. He nodded. “What is the truth, sweetheart?”

A weird giggle forced its way up my throat. “Hi mum, hi dad,” we said. “I’m a squid.”

Hic — went my mother. She let out a hysterical little laugh as well, then hiccuped again.

Oh.

Oh no.

My moment of catharsis and relief curdled in my gut: that’s where I got the hiccuping thing from.

My mother, wild-eyed and breathing too hard, said: “T-those aren’t real. They’re … p-paper mache! With lights inside! T-this is a cruel, cruel trick to play on us, Heather. I thought better of you, you’re not—”

One of us lost control — Top-Right whipped outward, a single tentacle arching through the air like a spear, to stop six inches from my mother’s nose.

“Eek!” My mother shrieked, then crammed a hand over her mouth, panting through the gaps between her fingers, wide eyes glued to the slow-strobing tip in front of her eyes.

My father reached across the sofa and gripped my mother’s arm. “Samantha. Samantha, it’s alright, it’s okay. It’s only— it’s only our— our Heather, our—”

“Dad, stop,” I said. He was struggling too, and I couldn’t bear it. “That was … that was my fault. I shouldn’t have been so … aggressive.”

Part of us burned with shame — well, not Top-Right, but most of the rest of us. That little whipcrack was no different than pretending to wind up and deliver a punch to my mother’s face. A threat, faked and stalled, but a threat nonetheless. That was not what we wanted.

But still we held that one tentacle in front of my mother’s eyes. We coiled our tip, curling and spiralling, with bands of colour descending our length; we showed off the fine control, folding and flexing the pale skin, undeniably biological and alive. Smooth and elegant and expressive. Deny this, mother.

My mother removed her hand from her mouth. Her eyes were glued to me — to us, to our tentacle. “It’s … ” she murmured. “It’s a … a robotic arm, then. Silicon for the skin. A-a project, at your University. Doesn’t … doesn’t Sharrowford have a robotics department, or something? Yes! Yes, that must be it.”

We sighed. “Mother, how could I have gotten six robotic limbs through the front door?”

“You … you had it concealed under your clothes,” she answered. Her voice grew with confidence as she spoke. “In a sort of fold-out costume. Like those on-stage costume changes in Christmas pantomimes.” Her eyes left my tentacles and found my face again. She was denying my reality even with it right in front of her, turning her eyes away from the truth. “Don’t you remember that one production of Jack And The Beanstalk, from when you were eight?”

“Mum,” we said. “Stop.”

“The fairy girl in that panto,” she went on, “she had a dress, a milkmaid’s dress, as a sort of disguise, and a stage-trick was set up so she could do a little spin and the whole outfit transformed into a sparkling gown.” My mother took a deep breath and pointed a finger at my face. “I remember it so clearly because you were delighted! You squealed and clapped along with all the other little children. You loved it! You remember that, don’t you? Don’t you? You do!”

Of course I remembered my parents taking me to Christmas pantomimes; I even recalled that specific production, and the actress my mother had referenced. I remembered that the ‘fairy girl’ was very, very pretty, and my childhood self had been struck by fleeting puppy-love, dissolved into memory by the following dawn. And I remembered the flashy costume-change, the twirl and the sparkle, the enchantment of stage magic.

But unlike my parents I also remembered that Maisie had been there too, squealing and clapping and entranced alongside me.

“Mum,” we said, struggling to retain our patience. “You hugged me on the doorstep. I think you would have noticed if I was concealing five stone worth of high-grade costume equipment under my clothes. Stop ignoring the evidence of your own eyes.”

My mother huffed sharp and hard, to cover the way she was shaking all over. She jabbed a finger at Sevens instead. “Your friend there! Miss Sevens — if that is even your real name — she did it! She was standing by your side the whole time! She gave it to you somehow. She— uurk!”

My mother gasped, her rising rant cut off mid-stream; Seven-Shades-of-Serene-Scorn had turned upon her the most wintry and cutting of looks, blank and flat and without mercy. My mother stared back, quivering in her chair, compressing and twitching her lips with the effort of finding a retort to the silent transfixation of Sevens’ eyes.

“Do not avert your gaze, Mrs Morell,” said Sevens.

We made a show of glancing at Sevens and looking her up and down, indicating her body with the flick of one tentacle, her smart, creaseless blouse and her spotless, long skirt, wrapped around her slender, slight physique.

We said: “And how would she have concealed that, mother? Sevens isn’t exactly wearing baggy clothes.”

My mother rallied with a valiant effort to continue denying reality. Her attention whirled away from Sevens, sliding across my face and heading for the other side of my tentacles. “Then it was your other friend!” she snapped. “The goth with the ridiculous dress! Aym, was it? Yes, that’s it! That’s why she’s wearing all … those … layers … ?”

Aym — our little coal-smoke demon of reverse psychology and emotional torment — had become rather overwhelmed by the excess of raw, unironic, heartfelt emotion on display. She had retreated behind the shadow of my tentacles; I had no idea how she managed to locate ‘shadow’ in the lee of light-emitting organs, but she did, somehow, and we were not about to ask for the details. She had sunk into the black lace of her dress, become faceless and handless, a pillar of gloom wrapped in moon-dark cobwebs.

My mother trailed off as she stared at what Aym had become. The sight of my tentacles had cracked open her mind, not all the way, but just enough to allow her to witness the truth, however briefly.

My father was staring as well, but he remained more coherent. He stroked his moustache and nodded at Aym. “That’s an impressive trick, Miss Aym. I take it you value your privacy?”

“Thank you,” Aym replied in a voice like rusty nails dragged along rotten wood. Almost shy, by her standards.

My mother stammered and gulped, cold sweat beading on her forehead. “I don’t— I don’t— I don’t believe any of it. T-this is a trick, some kind of trick. You’re playing a c-cruel jest, you … ”

“You’re really going to make us go all the way, aren’t you?” I hissed, more angry than I had expected. I shoved another sliver of lemon-flesh into my mouth, biting down on the sharp taste to control my bitter disgust, then whipped Top-Right back away from my mother’s face. “Fine. Look.”

I turned one flank — my left — toward my parents. With a human hand I reached into the slit on the side of my hoodie and pulled it wide, revealing the mass of altered flesh where pneuma-somatic tentacles met human skin. We flexed and tensed the muscles, showing ourselves off, a sheen of tears in our eyes. Humiliation and vindication swirled together inside my head.

My father looked away, trying to be polite. My mother stared, a hand to her mouth.

I let the slit fall shut again. “Deny that,” we said. “Go on.”

My father stroked his moustache and stared at a point on the floor, thinking hard, brow furrowed. “Sweetheart, Heather, what … what does this mean?”

My mother straightened up before I could answer, face as composed as she could manage, which wasn’t much; she looked like a victim of some unspeakable natural disaster, her world washed away in a storm. “This doesn’t change a thing, Heather,” she said. “You’re mentally ill. You know that. You’re sick and you need help. I don’t … it doesn’t matter what … what … body parts you have … ” She paused, panting, frowning, trying to overcome the weight of her world-view. “You still need to see the doctors. You need to go back to hospital. You need to go back on your medication. Your father and I don’t want to force you, but—”

“Mother,” I snapped. “Don’t be absurd. I have tentacles! Look!”

She looked me right in the eyes and said: “It makes no difference! We are your parents. You are going back to hospital, young lady.”

We sighed and rubbed our face with one hand. “You can’t have me involuntarily committed. Not just because I’m legally an adult, but because it’s physically impossible.”

“What are you talking about?” my mother snapped. “Heather, this is delusion. You know it’s delusion. You need help, treatment, just like the first time. This is just another—”

With one swift tentacle we reached out and picked up our father’s book from the little table next to the sofa. We drew it close and discovered he had been reading The English Civil War: A People’s History; we dearly hoped that wasn’t some kind of sign. Then we dipped a hand into the tarry-black, corrosive sump at the base of our soul, yanked hard on a few familiar levers, and spread the consequences outward through our distributed nervous system.

Out.

The book vanished right in front of my parents’ eyes. They both just stared, dumbfounded, audience members for a magic trick. I waited a few seconds, then reversed the process; I hadn’t sent the book anywhere questionable, it was just sitting on a hillside in Camelot, probably puzzling a few Knights and a Caterpillar or two. With a flicker of hyperdimensional mathematics — this trick now elementary to me, at the cost of nothing more than a brief wave of nausea, a spike of head pain, and a nasty tingle down our nervous system — we brought the book back to our own left hand.

We held up the book.

My mother scoffed. “Oh, that was just sleight of hand! What do you take us for, Heather? Don’t be ridiculous, you—”

“Sevens, Aym,” I said, tossing the book onto the sofa. “Please step back from my body. Don’t touch me for a moment.”

Out.

We skimmed off the surface of the membrane between here and Outside, bouncing like a flat stone on the surface of an endless, bottomless sea. We sling-shotted around a fixed point in reality, there and back in the blink of an eye, burning across the heavens beneath the world like a comet made of tentacles and beaks.

We touched down a split-second later in the kitchen, stumbling slightly, a small trickle of blood running from our nose, head pounding with the increased effort of brain-math. But the effort was spread and shared, and we did not fall to our knees or vomit up our guts on the familiar old kitchen floor tiles; that would have rather undercut the intended affect, if my parents had rushed in there to see me chucking up my dinner.

We could not pause here to ruminate over memories, over the shadows of sunset pouring in through the back window, over the hard plastic counter tops where once we had made cookies with Mother and Maisie. Spirits fled from the back windows, from the thin grass in the garden, scuttling under the kitchen table, vanishing through the cracks in the cupboards. We nodded to the big dozy red-mawed spirit still lazing by the doorway, and then stepped past it, back into the sitting room. Childhood fears formed no more barriers for us, not anymore. They were our friends now.

My mother was up on her feet, clutching at her own chest in panic; she stifled another shriek when she saw me step out of the kitchen. My father was awestruck once more, gazing up at me from the sofa. Sevens was waiting, relaxed and cool. Aym was a pillar of shadow.

“Explain that,” we said.

My mother sat back down, panting too hard. My father shook his head.

As we resumed our place in the middle of the room, flanked by Sevens and Aym, we said: “I didn’t take the train from Sharrowford to Reading. I teleported myself here, along with my friends. You cannot confine me in any way that can hold my body. Sorry, mum, dad, that sounds weird, but it’s just a fact. You can’t! I know, I sound like a cartoon villain, but it’s the truth.” We sighed, rubbing our face. “Or, well, maybe you can! If you know a magician or two, or a cult, or some unspeakable monster you’ve never told me about. But I don’t think you do.” We smiled and swallowed a hiccup. “I really don’t think you ever did. You never lied to me. I know that.”

“It’s not real,” my mother said in a tiny, forlorn voice. Tears quivered in her eyes. I had to look away. I didn’t want to see my mother cry, no matter how difficult she could be.

My father straightened up and cleared his throat. “I hope it is real, dear,” he said to my mother.

She stared at him, wide eyed and appalled. “What?! Why— why would you say that?”

My dad nodded at me with calm certainty. “Because Heather looks happy. Well.” He cleared his throat again. “Maybe not right now, not while she’s having to explain all this to her parents.” He smiled, just a little. “Am I right, sweetheart? No, you don’t have to answer. But look at her, Sammy. That’s our daughter. That’s our Heather. Look how strong she’s grown.”

I sniffed, so I wouldn’t start crying too. “Thanks, dad,” I croaked. “T-thank you.”

My mother just shook her head, horrified on a deeper level than I could touch.

My dad spoke to me again: “Sweetheart, you still haven’t explained what this all means.”

I laughed, surprising myself. “It means I’m a hybrid squid-girl from beyond reality, running a shared consciousness with seven semi-separate selves. It means mages and monsters and magic are all real. It means I have four — five? I’ve lost count. Four supernatural girlfriends. Yes, I’m in a polycule, and we can talk about that some other time, because now is really not the time. Do you remember Evelyn, from when we visited at Christmas? She does magic, she’s a magician. And Sevens here, she’s technically my fiancée, and she’s the daughter of a god from beyond reality, and—”

“W-what about Raine?!” my mother squeaked, blinking away tears. “She was a very nice girl! Very nice! I thought she was very good for you!”

“Raine and I are probably going to get married,” we said. “I love her.”

“But— but is she—”

“Oh, Raine’s human—”

My mother sighed with exaggerated relief.

“—but she’s more scary than most monsters. She’s killed a whole bunch of people. Mostly for me.”

My mother hiccuped twice in quick succession, then grasped her chest and stared in abject horror.

My dad said: “Sweetheart, slow down, please. I can’t take even a small portion of this on board. You have … extra … limbs, yes, I can see them.” He squinted hard at my tentacles, trying to fix them in his mind, punctuating his words with little chops of one hand; my father was not In The Know, not after a little light show and a translocation trick. It would take much more psychological violence to break even a willing participant out of the chains of reality. But he was trying, as hard as he could, to believe his daughter. “And they’re clearly real—”

My mum interrupted: “They’re ridiculous! Why are they rainbow? It’s such a stereotype! You could make them any colour you want!”

We flashed our tentacles in warning-yellow and danger-red, just to prove a point. My mother shut her mouth again, eyes full of tears. She was not dealing with this well, trying anything at all to deflect from what she saw.

My father cleared his throat and tried again. “They’re very impressive, sweetheart. But I can’t take all the rest of that on faith.”

We sighed and faced the inevitable. “Mum, dad, you will both begin to forget or rationalise all this within hours. Mum, you’re already trying to do it, right in the middle of all this. You’ll believe what’s in front of your eyes, for the duration of it being in front of your eyes, but as soon as your mind is able, it will start to self-edit, to warp your memories, to fill in the gaps with other things.” A strange lump formed in our throat — we didn’t want them to forget.

My mother spluttered. “Are you calling us plain imbeciles?”

“No, mum. No, I’m not.” We sighed. “You’ll remember this conversation, but you’ll probably recall it differently. Maybe you’ll remember me coming home from university for an evening, showing signs of mental illness, telling you I’m in a polycule of lesbians, that I’m engaged, that I’m defiantly not taking my meds, and so on. But the rest of it?” We shrugged, then started to struggle with tears of our own. Why could they not believe? “You’ll fill the rest in with mundane explanations. And that’s not your fault. That’s just how the human mind rejects evidence of the supernatural, rejects things from outside — or Outside, with a capital O, the dimensions beyond reality.” We sniffed hard, our anger turned to cold and ashen melancholy. “You’ll forget.”

My father said slowly: “And what does this have to do with … with your … medications … and … your ‘imaginary friend?’”

We winced. “Don’t call her that. I know it’s not your fault, dad. But you have to say her name. She’s your daughter as well. And she’s real.”

He swallowed, rough and raw. He took slow, deep breaths, squinting hard, unable to cross this final boundary of acknowledgement. If he said the name, it was as good as admitting that I had been right all along, all this time.

“Maisie,” we said the name for him. “She was real. She is still real. She and I were kidnapped by a god-like thing from Outside reality — The Eye, it’s called. I escaped. She didn’t. Everyone forgot. But it wasn’t your fault. It was The Eye.”

My mother sobbed, once, sodden and pitiful. What did she have to cry about, compared with me?

My father just shook his head slowly.

We said: “Did either of you ever doubt it? Ever doubt that you only had one daughter? Was there no inkling? Nothing at all?”

My dad said, very quietly and slowly: “I always thought twins would be nice, actually. Had a dream or two about it. You put the idea in my head, Heather. I never wanted to say it out loud, of course. That was the sort of thing we were never supposed to do, doctors orders, don’t feed the schizophrenic delusions, don’t give an inch. But you always seemed like you’d be happier with somebody else at your side. Even before the … the … ‘breakdown’, I mean. Even before. Always thought that.”

His murmur trailed off, eyes fixed somewhere in mid-distance, trapped in an emotion that had no place on my father’s face.

“I’m going to prove it to you,” we said. “Within two weeks. Because I’m going to rescue her. Say her name, dad.”

My father shook his head. “Will we remember?”

“I have no idea. Dad, please. Say her name.”

My father swallowed. “Ma—”

My mother screamed.

Face buried in her own hands, tears seeping from beneath her palms. She wailed like I’d never heard a human being wail before. There was no falsehood in that sorrow, no clumsily concealed manipulation, no crocodile tears to herd me back into a box. For a brief second I heard an echo of myself in her cry — my own voice, calling out for my twin in the dark.

“No!” she sobbed, hyperventilating, panicking behind her own hands. “No, there was one baby, one baby! There were never two!”

“Sammy!” my father called her name and tried to put an arm around her shoulders, but she shrugged him off and crammed herself against the side of the chair, crying wildly.

“I would not— I would never forget my own daughter! I would never! It was dreams! It was just dreams!”

I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say; of all the possible outcomes, this I had not expected. We coiled our tentacles inward, as if under attack.

My mother’s crying face, wracked with pain and loss, rose to face me, tears running freely down her cheeks. “There was one baby, one baby!” she screamed at me. “It was you, Heather. There were never two. Never two. There was never a— a— a M-Maisie! Maisie!” She wailed my twin’s name — her daughter’s name. “Maisie! No! No, we didn’t forget her. We didn’t. It was a lie. It was a lie! It was a lie … ”

My mother dissolved into full-body wracking sobs, shaking her like a fit, hands clutching at her hair and skull as if trying to dig the memories out of her brain.

Sevens leaned close to my ear. She whispered: “Your mother needs you, my love.”

Amid the bitterness and the humiliation, the catharsis and the vindication, I had overlooked an essential truth.

If I was right, then my parents were also victims of the Eye.

Their daughter had been taken from them by forces beyong human comprehension. They had been made to forget about her, abandon her, and deny she ever existed. And then, with their minds clouded and memories violated, they had unintentionally tortured their other daughter by telling her she was insane.

No wonder my mother denied it so strongly. To accept the smallest crack was to invite madness.

We went to her. I crammed the last of my emergency lemon into my mouth to give me the courage I needed. We knelt down in front of my mother’s chair and put all our tentacles around her arms and shoulders and back, and tried to hold onto what was good in her.

“Mum. Mum? Mum, please look at me.”

She shook her head, sobbing and shaking, but eventually she looked up and met my eyes. She was a mess, red-faced and red-eyed, more distraught than I’ve ever seen another human being, destroyed inside by things she could not understand. She was me, a year ago, sobbing in a public toilet when Raine was just a dream of better things. She was me, another victim of the Eye.

“Mum,” we said slowly. Our own voice was shaky too, crossing uncertain ground, croaking with semi-transformation into something abyssal and raw. “Maisie was real. I know she was real.”

My mother shook her head. Denial was her only escape.

“It’s not your fault that you forgot,” we said. “I don’t think you had a choice. The thing she was taken by, it’s called the Eye, and somehow it made everybody forget. It altered reality, changed all the old pictures of me and her so it was just me in every one. Her bed in our room, gone. Her clothes, toys, all kinds of records, anything, all of it, gone! It’s not your fault. And you’ll forget again. By the end of this conversation, or next morning, I don’t know, but your mind won’t let you remember. You’ll rationalise it away, you’ll—”

“I don’t— hic— want to?”

She murmured that question in such a tiny voice.

“Mum?”

“I— hic don’t want to, forget?” She held the tears back for a moment, her voice a wet and broken sound. “How do I— how do I make myself— not forget? Heather?”

My blood curdled, cold and sluggish inside my veins, glugging through my heart. My mother was pleading for the one thing I would never have imagined her asking for. And I could not give it to her. My mouth went dry. A lump hardened in my throat. My eyes filled with a mirror of her tears.

We had considered in great detail the measures we might take to force my parents to accept reality: a trip Outside; exposure to spirits via Evelyn’s pneuma-somatic seeing glasses; bringing Zheng to visit. But none of these would address Maisie’s absence. In some of our most bitter moments we had imagined how they might react if I brought them Maisie’s message — the childhood pajama top she had managed to pass to us via her Demon Messenger. I had imagined how they might feel, seeing the message in a bottle from the daughter they had abandoned.

But now, with my mother weeping and pleading, all thoughts of vindictive display had fled.

“I … I can’t risk it, mum,” we said. “I’d have to break you, change the fundamentals of your mind, by taking you Outside. And I can’t risk that, because the fallout and the consequences might interfere with that rescue. I’m … I’m sorry.”

My mother stared at me, hollow-eyed and dead inside. She murmured: “What should I do?”

“All you have to do is not interfere. I’ll bring Maisie back. I’ll bring her home. I promise.” 

My mother nodded, stiff and robotic, no longer weeping and wailing, but numb and distant. “Will it … ” her voice cracked a little. She sniffed hard. “Will it be very dangerous for you?”

“ … yes.”

She half-attempted to hug me, to touch my tentacles. One hand went around the back of my head, cradling me. “B-be safe, Heather. Sweetheart. We love you.”

I blinked back tears of my own.

Slowly, my mother let go. She sat up straight. Something seemed to clear inside her face.

“I have to write this down!” she declared. “I’m writing this down! I refuse to forget this! I refuse!”

I had to stand up and step back; she was in bustle mode, from weeping to problem-solving in one instant. My mother shot out of her chair and bowled right past me, stomping into the kitchen, scrubbing her eyes with the back of one hand. We heard drawers banging open and objects slapping down on the kitchen counter. She returned a moment later clutching a notebook and a pen, cast herself back down into the chair, and then bent over the pages, scribbling as fast as she could. Her handwriting was a herky-jerky spider-leg scrawl.

“If I write it down then I’ll believe it, if I write it down I’ll believe my own words,” she hissed as she wrote, rocking gently in the chair. “I won’t forget, I won’t forget, I won’t forget. See? Here’s her name: Maisie. Maisie is real. That’s my own hand. I won’t disbelieve my own hand. I shan’t. I refuse.”

My father reached out to her. “Sammy. Sammy, please, slow down.”

“Let her do this,” I said. “Dad, I think she needs to do this.” 

My mother kept writing, her notes spiralling out down the page and onto the next. My father leaned back and sighed a great and terrible sigh of deep exhaustion. He ran a hand over his face, tugging at his moustache. He was keeping it together better than my mother, but not by much, and not for the same reasons.

My mother muttered: “Heather, dear, I need the names of all the ladies in your ‘polycule’. And yes, yes, I do know what that word means, I’m not a hundred years old.”

To my surprise, Sevens stepped away from my side and went to stand by my mother’s shoulder. She peered at the notebook as my mother scribbled, murmuring soft suggestions and corrections, adding details in a feathery whisper, placing a gentle hand on my mother’s shoulder. My father watched all this with haunted eyes.

“Dad,” we said. “Do you believe what I’m telling you?”

My dad cleared his throat again, as if something with spikes was stuck to his vocal chords. “Well. Well, I don’t know. Sweetheart, I want to support you, I really do, but this is a lot to take in. A lot to adjust to, all at once. And, well.” He sighed and smiled. “You’ve just told me that in a few hours I’m going to file all this away as something that didn’t really happen. Is that right?”

“Maybe,” we said. “Maybe not all of it. I don’t know.”

He nodded slowly, taking steady, deep breaths. Was he fighting a panic attack? Perhaps. The mental image of my father shaking and shuddering in the throes of a panic attack was not a pleasant one.

“Dad,” we went on, giving him something practical on which to focus. “Do you believe me enough to tell me about the ‘strange lady’ now?”

My mother’s pen paused on the page. She looked up at my father. Sevens murmured something soft and slithering into my mother’s ear, and her eyes returned to her notes. She resumed writing.

My dad learned back on the sofa, nodding slowly, frowning as he dredged his own memories. He seemed to settle inside, as if this act of assistance gave him solace.

“Like I said, sweetheart,” he began slowly, “nothing strange happened in the days or weeks before your … ”

“Before Maisie was taken,” I said.

My dad nodded. “Before … before ‘Maisie was taken’. I’m pretty certain about that part, because the psychiatrists had us comb over every aspect of your life, everything which could have triggered the breakdown, or contributed to the state you were in. Anything and everything. And we came up a total blank. Kaput. Nada. Etcetera. Now that I think back on it, there wasn’t even anything which might be explained by this ‘mental self-editing’ you’re so insistent on.” He smiled, trying to awkwardly cover up his lack of faith. “Absolutely nothing weird happened before that night. Sweetheart, I promise, all I remember is when you started screaming. It was four o’clock in the morning. You screamed like … like I’d never heard a child scream before.” His voice broke. He knitted his hands together, knuckles turning white. “Worst sound I’ve ever heard, to hear your own child scream like that.”

“Okay,” I managed to say, squeezing the word out through a rapidly closing throat.

My own memories of that night lay like an open wound, oozing black pus and infected lymph, too raw and vulnerable to touch directly for long. I recalled the exit from Wonderland as akin to the sensation of falling backward down a well; I remembered scrabbling and clawing at the lip of that well, breaking and bloodying my fingers in a desperate attempt to not leave Maisie behind. Was any of that literal, or another abyssal metaphor for something that a child’s mind could not suffer?

And I remembered all too clearly the way I’d screamed, thrashing and bleeding on the bedroom floor, terrified beyond thought, wailing that Maisie was missing, Maisie was gone, that I had left Maisie behind.

A tiny, lace-clad hand slipped into mine. What a surprise; Aym did have an earnest side after all.

My father took a deep, shuddering breath, staring at a point on the carpet. “Sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t think. It’s hard for me, too.”

“It’s okay, Dad. Please. Please try.”

I reached out and wrapped a tentacle — Middle-Right — around his forearm and wrist. An anchor of our own. He stared at that for a moment, patted me awkwardly, then nodded with sudden determination.

“It was about three or four months later,” he started. His voice turned practical, matter-of-fact, grounded once again. “Maybe five months, I’m not certain. That whole period, that whole first year, until your first long stay at Cygnet Hospital, it’s kind of a blur for me and your mother. But it was about then. It happened at Cygnet. We were in one of the waiting rooms, not the big main room with the reception desk, but one of the smaller ones, the long one next to the consultation rooms. The one with the aquatic scenes and cartoon fish painted on the wall. You remember that one, Heather?”

We nodded. “I do remember it. Smelled like lemons.”

He nodded along with me, but his eyes were so far away, his hands shaking as he squeezed his own knuckles. “Me and your mother were in there alone. Well, not completely alone. I think there were another couple of people waiting at the far end, but I barely remember them. No, we were alone in the sense that you weren’t there, Heather. The doctors had taken you for some kind of ‘cognitive assessment’. They said it might go better if neither your mum or dad were present, but they didn’t force us not to be there. I remember that very clearly, for some reason. It was pure chance. Either or both of us could have chosen to stay in that room with you, and then maybe we wouldn’t have met … her.”

“Who?” I hissed, shivering inside. “Who was she, dad?”

He gestured to the right with his interlocked hands and a tilt of his head. “There was a fire exit in the side of the waiting room. One of those push-to-open-and-alarm-will-sound type doors. She came in through that. The alarm didn’t go off. Even at the time, I thought that was weird. From the moment she entered the room, I knew something was off. But I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

He swallowed, frowning harder, as if struggling to remember. Fighting the full weight of reality, for the sake of telling me the truth.

“You can do it, dad,” I hissed. “You can do it, please.”

He nodded. “She walked right up to us. She flashed a badge, like a lanyard, like she was hospital staff. She called us Mister and Misses Morell. She said she wanted to talk, about you, about our daughter, about Heather.” He shook his head slowly, squinting at nothing. “I knew something was wrong, but it was like I couldn’t say no. She wasn’t hospital staff, no way. No doctor or psychologist, nothing like that. She wasn’t dressed like any of them. Jeans and a jumper and a trench-coat. Like a detective from an old film or something. And she was carrying … I don’t know, I didn’t get a clear look at it. A long knife or a sword or something, inside the coat. But … but I just … ” He hissed as if in pain. “It was like I couldn’t point it out.”

“What did she look like?” we said. “Dad, what did she look like? This is important.”

“That’s half the reason I remember her so clearly,” my dad said, raising his eyebrows. “She was very striking. One of the most striking women I’d ever seen.”

“ … dad?”

My mother paused in her notebook-filling and muttered: “Your father’s not being funny. She really was.”

My dad nodded. “She was very tall. I didn’t stand up, but I had the impression she would tower over me if I did. She had the longest red hair I’d ever seen, all the way down to the backs of her knees. And proper red, not ginger, real red, like it was dyed. But it didn’t look like dye, it looked like … ” He huffed. “Bloody hell, blow me down, this sounds silly, but it wasn’t like hair colour at all. It was like frozen fire. And her eyes, they were all wrong inside. Pupils went the wrong way, like a goat or something.”

He looked up and met my eyes finally, searching for confirmation and reassurance. “Does that make any sense to you, sweetheart? Because I feel like I went mad and saw a hallucination.”

“I … I don’t know,” I said.

Who or what exactly had visited my parents? I had less idea now than before my father’s description. Some of us — us Heathers — had been prepared for the absolute worst, for my father to describe Loretta Saye, Evee’s mother, or for him to reveal that they’d been visited by somebody else I might recognise. But this? Mage or demon, or a vessel of the Eye, we had no idea.

“What did she say to you, about me?” I prompted.

My father blew out a long breath. “Well, she sat down next to me and your mother, and she asked all sorts of questions. Not questions like the doctors and psychiatrists asked, but weird questions. She showed us a bunch of symbols in a little notebook and asked if we recognised any of them. She asked if you were displaying any strange new habits or proclivities, like if you were trying to go out at night, or killing small animals, or reading a bunch of books too old for you, or if you’d lost all your appetite and were trying to eat non-food items instead.”

My mind soared and whirled; this was making even less sense than before. “What? Was that all? What else did she ask?”

“All sorts of questions, I can’t recall even a fraction of them, I’m sorry.” He shrugged. “I remember she said a bunch of strange words — not English, like — and was checking to see if we knew them. We didn’t, though, and I’m sorry, but I can’t recall any of them, this was ten years ago. She drew a symbol in her notebook, and it was … well.” He swallowed. “It was like an eye. Like you were raving about in the first few days. A big black eyeball.” He shook his head. “We only recognised that because of what you’d been saying, Heather.”

My blood went cold.

A mage?

Had a mage sent Maisie and me to the Eye?

“And was that all?” I said, colder than I had intended.

My father took a deep breath and glanced at my mother. My mother paused her writing and swallowed, raw and hard and rough. Sevens tightened her grip on my mother’s shoulder.

“Dad?” I prompted.

My dad said, slowly and carefully: “She had a photograph. A hard copy photograph, not on a digital camera or anything. She took it out and showed it to us. And she knew it was going to make us angry. It made me very angry, because … because I knew it had to be a fake. Photoshop or something. That was when I decided she was a charlatan, a con-woman or something, trying to trick us somehow.” His voice turned hoarse. “She’d stolen hospital records and read about your case, something like that. She was trying to prey on us. There was no other explanation. None. It was impossible.”

“Dad. Dad, what was the photograph?”

He was shaking as she pushed the word out. “It was of you, Heather, and another girl who looked exactly like you. Identical, but dressed differently. In a pub garden, before a sunset. I recognised the pub, it was the Rose and Thistle, right here in Reading. And I recognised the photograph, because I was the one who took it.” He swallowed, throat like sandpaper. “A photoshop. Must have been. Couldn’t have been anything else.”

“Dad, did you get a name from her?” I said. “Anything, anything at all? I need to track this woman down, dad. I need to find her. Now!”

My dad raised a hand. “It was around then that I lost my temper. I’d been feeling angry with her for a while, but it was like … like something was holding that back, stopping me from saying no or asking her to show some real credentials. But when she showed me the picture, it was like that feeling was removed and … I told her that we would call the police.”

“Dad, that was a mage. A magician, a wizard, she—”

“She apologised. She stood up and wished us good luck with you. She said she had a lot of pity for you, but she was sorry she couldn’t do more to ‘fix the mistake’. She said it wasn’t her area of expertise, couldn’t help—”

“Dad!”

“And then she gave me a business card.”

My mother’s head jerked up, staring at my father. “You didn’t keep the damned thing, did you? All these years?”

My dad managed to look almost sheepish, but then he sat up straighter, filled with pride and defiance. “Turns out that was the right option, in the long run.”

“Where?!” my mother yelped. “It’s not in the big file with all of Heather’s medical notes, I would have seen it! I told you to throw that horrid thing away! She was a charlatan, a—” My mother slammed to a halt. She returned her eyes to her notes, staring hard, gone silent. Trying her best.

“Dad?” we said.

He looked me in the eyes. “Kept it in my wallet all these years. Tucked behind my Tesco clubcard. Ten years is a long time for a little paper business card to last, right?” He smiled a shaky smile. “I never thought of that before. Maybe that’s not normal either.”

I was shaking, both inside and out. All our tentacles tingled in anticipation, though we could not even conceive of what this truth meant.

A mage? A mage who had sent us to the Eye? Something else? The Eye’s messenger? None of this made sense.

My heart burned with something I’d never felt before.

“Dad, please—”

“I’ll fetch it,” he said.

My dad stood up and went into the tiny little entrance hallway, to rummage in his coat pockets for a moment. He returned holding his black leather wallet, scuffed at the corners. He flipped it open, extracted a little rectangle of cream-coloured card, and pressed that into my shaking palm.

For a moment we could barely read the words on the card; we were breathing so hard that our vision had gone blurry. We had to bring three tentacles to bear, just to make out the print with a wide-angle array of pneuma-somatic sight. The card itself was nothing special. No strange symbols or magical designs hidden in the corners or on the back, no esoteric tricks or traps in the writing, no clues that this was the ‘business card’ of a mage — or worse. And my dad was right: the card did not look as if it had spent ten years crammed into a wallet. It looked as fresh as the day it had been printed.

It read, in neat and professional typeface:

Taika Eskelinan

At Large In The World, Despite Your Best Efforts

All enquiries please telephone:
010456-6754-7777-00-00-2

A smile ripped at the corners of my mouth, teeth aching to elongate and sharpen. All our tentacles extended and flexed, threatening to bud with spikes. A predatory shudder passed through our guts.

A telephone number — blood in the water.

Time to hunt.

Announcement

Heather gets her catharsis, her parents get the truth (however painful and horrifying) along with a sliver of hope at the bottom of the box, the promise of their lost daughter coming home, the promise of not forgetting again; and Heather gets a kind of truth as well. But who the hell is Taika? More mage bullshit, and our little squid is eager to hunt.

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Next week, Heather pounces. Springs from the dark. From among the rocks. Ever seen an octopus eat a crab? Yeah, something like that. Crunch crunch crunch. Let's hope she looks before she leaps. Erk.

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