Ch. 107 – Home Sweet Home
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Benjamin walked with his friends toward his childhood home. Far from being the joyous homecoming he’d occasionally dreamt about in the darkest days of last winter, though, it was a dour affair. Everyone was on edge, and all of them were silent for different reasons. 

Emma’s tear-streaked visage was locked on the ground, Matt’s angry glare focused on Ethan and Benjamin… Well, he was just lost. What had been happening for the last half hour was simply too insane for words, and the number of hostages Ethan had assembled made what he knew he was going to have to do almost impossible. 

His parents? Different versions of Emma? It was simply too insane.

That burden only got higher still when Ethan opened the front door and Benjamin’s mother came out to hug him. This time, there had been no barrier, but there might as well have been. She was able to freeze him in place just as effectively at that moment with nothing more magical than her comfortable old outfit consisting of a faded pastel sweater, her mom jeans, and an old checked apron that he remembered so well. No matter how much he distrusted it, the familiar sensation was enough to bring tears to his eyes.

“Well, look who’s finally come home,” she said with a wide smile and a touch of sadness in her eyes. “Only a year late for family dinner, too. Do you know how worried sick we’ve been about you?”

“I…I’m sorry, Mom,” was all Benjamin managed to say as he fought back the emotions that were surging inside him as he hugged her tighter.

Was this really her? He wondered to himself. Was it even possible to fake this? Even with all the magic in the world?

“Sorry?” she laughed, “That’s all you’ve got to say for yourself? Ethan told us your friends got engaged, so if you disappear like that for a year, I’m at least going to want to see some pictures of whoever it was that kept you so distracted!”

She certainly looked and acted like his mom. She even smelled like it. He was vaguely concerned that she didn’t seem to mind that her house had been relocated to the endless plains of another world, but he didn’t know quite how to bring that up as she turned and escorted him to the front door. 

Benjamin’s memories weren’t what they’d once been, but he still had more than a few snapshots of Christmases and birthdays that were rattling around in his broken mind. As he searched through those, he was certain. Every last memory he had left told him that this was real. 

That worrying sense of déjà vu only intensified as they walked inside, and he saw his dad sitting on the couch watching the TV. 

“There he is,” the graying man said as his eyes darted away from the TV for a moment so he could smile at his son before he returned to watching the game.

Well, he was watching a blank set, but as Benjamin looked to Ethan to ask, the other man said, “Sadly, I did not bring a power plant over from your world as well, so I gave him a little illusion to keep the game on. It keeps him calm.”

Benjamin could see how that was theoretically possible, of course, even if he wasn’t quite sure how he’d implement an illusion in the mind of one person instead of manifesting it for everyone as he’d always done before. However, even the word illusion made him paranoid at this point. 

So, as he walked through the living room toward the dining room table and stumbled through small talk with parents he never thought he’d see again, Benjamin made it a point to pick up several familiar objects, from remote controls to knickknacks, to make sure they were real. He even straightened a painting and cleaned the dust off a framed family portrait on the wall. 

The whole time, he’d been hoping he’d find a glitch that would betray illusion magic at work, of course, but he didn’t. Everything felt real to the touch. 

Even without those small details, this would have been hard to dismiss, though. While Ethan had met his parents before, it was hard to believe that he could nail his father’s casual neglect and his mother’s caring guilt quite so completely from the handful of times they’d met years and years ago. 

Benjamin tried to remember when that was, but he couldn’t, so instead, he turned to his dad while his mother was asking Emma about her outfit in a tone that was partway between serious concern and friendly disdain. 

“So, where do you think we are exactly, Dad?” Benjamin asked, sitting down on the ottoman in front of him and forcefully stealing away his attention from whatever it was he imagined he was watching. 

“Where?” his dad repeated the question like he was struggling for an answer. “The same place I am every Sunday afternoon: on my couch, in my house, watching my game. The real question is, where in the hell have you been all this time.”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Dad,” Benjamin said with a shake of his head. 

The two of them shared a few minutes of shallow conversation after that as Benjamin’s mom took his friends into the kitchen and had Matt help her with getting dishes from the high shelves so he could set the table. Even the shallowness of his current conversation wasn’t enough to raise suspicion. 

This was just how his dad related to everything that wasn’t on the TV these days. He was a man of two-minute phone calls, three-word texts, and all the screen time you could handle. 

The next 10 minutes passed in a sort of haze while his mother juggled pots and pans and pronounced that they were almost ready to sit down. Benjamin conferred with Matt and Emma briefly in hushed tones about what their instincts were telling them. 

Even though none of them could point to anything solid, when Benjamin’s mom invited Emma to go upstairs to the bathroom if she wanted to freshen up, they all agreed it was a bad idea to be separated. “You’re not going anywhere without me in this place,” Matt said with an intensity that was almost as touching as it was creepy. 

Eventually, there was nothing to do but sit around the dining room table and see how long this strange game could possibly last until something snapped. Emma tried to hasten that moment by needling Ethan about where he’d been all this time and how he’d weather the winter without them, but he didn’t let her get under his skin. 

Benjamin would have liked to duck out of that whole conversation, but the way they were seated made that impossible. His dad sat at the foot of the table, and Benjamin and Ethan sat across from Matt and Emma along the sides, leaving the head for his mother. 

Looking around the dining room as she started to bring out the food she’d been slaving away on for the last few hours, he couldn’t help but get the sense that something was off. “No, no, you stay where you are. I’ll take care of this,” in that tone, that was finally enough to force his dad to rise to his feet and help her.

This was what his mom liked to cook, and it was how she talked, of course. Even the salt and pepper shakers were right, but somehow, they were too right. 

Benjamin remembered these dishes and this table, but he was pretty sure they hadn’t owned both at the same time. Likewise, the living room furniture and the kitchen appliances seemed like they were about a decade or two apart as styles went. 

Is it possible that this is my parent’s house from some parallel universe? Benjamin wondered.

Even thinking that felt stupid, though. He knew better than anyone just how broken his memory was now. He could be getting a thousand things wrong, but there was no way someone else could get even half this many things right. Benjamin doubted that he would have been able to get half this many things right even before he’d been robbed of most of his memories. 

He broke his reverie as Ethan handed him the peas, and he dutifully plated them up before passing the serving dish on to his dad. The mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and meatloaf followed in rapid succession, but even though it looked good, Benjamin still had no idea if he was going to eat it or not. 

As much as he loved his mother and her cooking, this whole place was beyond suspect. The longer it stayed normal, complete with friendly conversation and the occasional bout of laughter, the more it creeped him out. It would seem that he wasn’t the only one, either, because even while Benjamin played with his food and tried to figure out what in the hell was going on, Matt exploded. 

“One more word out of you, and I’ll rip your fucking head off!” he yelled at Ethan, though Benjamin had entirely missed what Ethan had said to provoke his friend. 

“Language!” his mother called out. 

For a moment, Benjamin thought that was going to be enough for Matt to flip the entire table. He watched as Matt stood and gripped the edge, but instead, he mastered the urge, and even as Emma reached for him, he turned around and smashed the dining room wall with his fist, sinking it deeply into the white wall. 

Too slow, Benjamin was on his feet, ready to stop all of this from getting worse, but when Matt pulled his armored fist from the wall, everything changed. At a glance, he could see that whatever it was Matt had just struck was not drywall. There was no void behind there, like there should have been, or two-by-fours for that matter. 

Instead, there was only a coat of paint over a thin layer of plaster and daubed atop now fractured bricks. He was on his feet in an instant as his vague and growing concerns that he’d been tricked crystallized around that discrepancy. 

“That’s… not supposed to be there,” he said, pointing to the wall. “This place, the whole thing, should be drywall, not—”

“If you don’t think that wall is right, you’re welcome to tear it down, but I think that would piss your parents off,” Ethan said with a shrug. 

“Damn right it would,” Benjamin’s dad cursed. “I did this remodel myself, and you better tell your friend that he needs to apologize right now, or he’s going to have to leave.”

Benjamin ignored the person who might not actually be his dad, as well as Ethan’s non-denial as he turned to Matt. “Does that look like a house built in modern America to you?”

Matt stiffened as he understood what Benjamin meant, and Emma reversed her grip on the steak knife as she felt the mood of the room change. 

“Now I wouldn’t call this place modern Benji,” his dad said, “You have to remember it was a real piece of shit when we bought it in 78, but you weren’t born for years yet, so you wouldn’t…”

Benjamin didn’t buy it, though. He was certain that Ethan’s expression was too smug by half, and the very fact that his dad was defending this illusion on command just made him believe it less. 

In that tense moment, Benjamin never even saw Ethan reaching for him. His only clue that it was happening was the expression on Emma’s face as she moved to leap over the table, but even as she stood and leaped off the chair, time froze solid. 

No one moved, not even Benjamin, for a long moment. It was only then, as everything began to fade into nonexistence, that Ethan stood and walked around in front of them, leaving the two of them standing there in the void. 

“I’d hoped to do this the easy way,” Ethan said, “But some worlds are only skin deep, and now that you’ve pricked the bubble, we’ll have to do it like this instead. It’s just going to take longer, but hey - I’ve got all the time in the world.”