I’d been out at the new apartment, trying to get my power sorted, when I saw the texts that made my stomach drop. Shaking, I rang Asra. Asra had been appalled before when I’d spoken about the dog-piling three or four against one that had been done to me before, and told me to call them if the household ever tried to pull this again. In fact, they said they would drive here and protect me, if need be. “I’m scared to go home,” I’d blurted.
I couldn’t do it again. I couldn’t be harassed until my mind went blank and I was forced to apologise and beg for any sort of mercy.
Asra called Arkady, then called me back. “Hey, he’s upset, but he says he’s going to try not to yell at you. I spoke to Ash and they said they would try to rein him in a bit. It’s just one talk, then you all can move into different apartments and try to cool down for a while.”
I stared. There was a storm brewing overhead. A plastic bag did cartwheels in front of me as the wind whipped around my tense body. Somehow, a situation that was ‘unacceptable’ months before was turned into, ‘The household gets a little yell at Xanthe. As a treat.’
I’d tried to take a break away from Facebook for a few weeks. It was my most accurate mirror I could find, and it was becoming depressing to look at. I hadn’t reached out to many. And now, even someone who knew about the situation was fine with me being the sacrificial lamb for this crowd to get their pound of flesh.
The existential crisis that had been in my mind like a powder keg kept weighing on me. I remember I had theorized that perhaps if all of my friends were Neb’s characters, I likely was too. But why did she create me? What was I based off of?
Spoiler alert: As I’d said before, Neb was heavily into Black Butler and The Infernal Devices series at the time of my creation. But in this state, I was horrified by the coincidence that April had had a British blonde boyfriend by the name of Dante. What if she based me off that boy?
Vex would point out later on that I met April before even hearing of Dante. But this thought was the straw that broke the camel’s back. It’s what drove me over the edge. I’d tried to soothe my brain with wine, but it was practically screaming with an entire existential crisis and I couldn’t shut it up.
I booted up my laptop, went on Facebook Live. My laptop has an issue where it doesn’t like to let me filter down my audience the first time around, so at first I tried to go into my private FB group for mental illness, called Coping.
I actually don’t remember what I said on that one. I just knew that my audience wasn’t big enough. No, no, that wouldn’t do at all. I felt crazy, didn’t know who was real and who wasn’t, I’d been isolated far too long– fuck it, I’d just go public. I was too tired of screaming in my own head not to need a least a classroom’s worth of people around me.
As I was waiting for the broadcast to go through, I couldn’t help but notice I wasn’t alone in my room. Xhaxhollari, who I’d pointedly ignored these past couple of months, was seated on my bed. His wings were folded and he regarded me with a stony expression. Vex was seated on the floor, at the foot of my desk. “Good. You need witnesses,” Vex murmured, with a side-eye to the door.
I shook my head at her and opened my phone. Another text from Arkady. “You forgot to mention Gaslamp,” it said.
Oh, yes. The pack mentality that I gave a name. It reminded me so much of my ex that I thought she was following me. As it turned out, my housemate actually went to her. I was right about everything except the magic portion. I wasn’t trying to start with that, but–
“I need this to end somehow,” I whispered. “I can’t take any more of this.”
“You must endure.” Xhaxhollari, unlike Vex, made no effort to keep his voice down. “It’s clear there is something wrong. What if it targets Arkady next? You know he can’t survive this.”
I chewed on the ends of my fingers. “Even if we’re right, there’s nothing I can do if everyone hates me. And why am I still seeing Mx. Be Not Afraid over there? I integrated that angel!”
Yet that fucker was still over my shoulder, smirking, living its best life without going dormant.
I glanced at the broadcast as footsteps approached. It hadn’t started yet. Did I forget to push a button? Vex fiddled with the mouse a bit, crouching between myself and the door. I think I was already talking at this point– discussing the odd instances where Arkady had yelled at me and hadn’t seemed to remember it, how the house seemed obsessed with accommodating and defending certain people and mistreating others, how they weren’t like this before they met March–
I don’t remember if he knocked or not, but suddenly, Arkady. “Xanthe, come here. We’re having this talk. Now.”
Vex shook her head.
“I don’t want to.” I replied. “And I’m not even sober.”
“When are you sober, Xanthe?”
Ever not pay attention and have autism just auto-fill your next reply? Because uh. “Before 7pm.” A little rule I’d invented for myself. I was so proud.
“Mm. Yes, nice snark, there.”
“I was being literal.”
“I can tell the difference between your literal tone and your snark. Come downstairs, we’re talking.” His voice was icy cold, lacking in any sort of warmth and compassion. It used to sing me to sleep. It used to give me enough ‘I love you’s’ to last the weekend. It used to tell me about how it couldn’t live without me. It used to be my favourite song. And now it just sounded like an angry, violent stranger. He used to know me, and now he couldn’t even tell my tones apart.
“I don’t want to.”
Again, my memory blurs. I still have video proof on my FB, but trauma has made it difficult to bring it up again. I think it was full of him trying to get me into another intervention and myself refusing. I think it’s at this point where he told me, “We’re having this talk or I’m telling all of your Facebook followers when your birthday actually is.”
“You’re blackmailing me?” My voice sounded wooden. Vex narrowed her eyes, then looked at me in alarm. Something was going through its death-throes in my soul, and it wasn’t me. I thought it had been, for months. It’d been dying since the month of March. I had thought it was me, I felt it so keenly. Maybe this night would finally kill me. I would disappear into this brain as Neb did, finally be at peace. But at this blackmail, I felt a brief pain, as if the mortal blow had just landed, then… nothing. I felt an odd sort of detachment, as if the world around me were a nightmare.
He said some sort of reply. But I turned to my broadcast. I never could behave well enough to be properly blackmailed. “Yes, my body was born on August 25th, 1993. I’ve never used that birthday because I felt like a walk-in soul. I’ve only had this body since about 2013.” In the background, Arkady was screaming ‘Lies, lies, LIES!’ through the door. I continued on. “I don’t know what’s going on. There’s a lot of friends that I’ve had that are apparently fictional, like me, and I don’t know what’s real or not.” I rambled afterwards. I rambled about my paranoia over Zara, how everyone seemed offended that I didn’t want company over for half of each week with no notice and leaving a sprinkling of empty energy drink cans and a cloud of weed scent wherever she staggered. I discussed how toxic March was when he first moved in, about how he seemed to turn Ash from someone who cared deeply for Arkady to someone that would rather have sex with March for eight hours. Whoever just died in me, it was like I was breathlessly telling their tale of betrayal and how they met their fate.
At this point, Arkady was screaming, ‘Asra says to get off Live! Get off Live! Get off Live! Get off Live RIGHT now.’ He kept screaming. What would happen if I got off Live? What would he do?
I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to express that I didn’t know. He was still screaming.
I went non-verbal. I didn’t know how to make it stop.
I picked up some sort of holiday card, flipped it to the blank side, and wrote the only phrase I could express, and held it up for the camera.
He finally left. A friend, who had witnessed the exchange, texted me an offer to pick me up for the night, just to make me feel safe. Which, I decided was probably for the best, as Arkady was shouting, “Are you FUCKING kidding me?” downstairs.
Vex gathered a bag for me. In low tones, she coached me on where everyone in the house was, informing me I had a clear path to the cars outside. Together, we ran outside.
I vaguely remember hugging my friend’s friend. “You didn’t even seem to be talking shit?” She reassured me. “You just seemed to be… venting.” I remember shakily rambling about how it’d gone too far this time, stunned that this had even happened. The rest of the night occurred in a disassociated blur. I’d rescued my box of Franzia, intending to nurse that for the rest of the night. Upon noting this, my friend joked that I was a ‘high-functioning alcoholic.’ And you know, after six months of balancing on eggshells, it wasn’t far from exaggerative.
My friend received a text from March, detailing either lies or things the rest of the household used to endorse. He even mocked me for thinking Oscar Wilde may have been a past life. Which, was not only something that Arkady had suggested, but something March’s toxic ex had already went for. Funny, how one can become one’s worst enemy. Everything else had been a lie.
My friend offered me a stim toy and I slept a nice, drunken sleep on their apartment couch that night. The next day, I was still disassociated. I felt mostly numb and detached from reality. I kept having to ask my friend to repeat conversations. Especially after a text I’d gotten from Asra, saying I was cut off from them for publicly complaining about the round after round of hen-pecking. They took me to a walk around the river, helped me pick up some of AJ’s things they’d sent via the train. Then it was time to go back. My friend only lived in a shared apartment with a roommate, after all. And I hadn’t brought enough to stay extra days.
I updated a status, clarifying that Arkady was not beating me, and likely never would. I made the Lives private. I genuinely did not want anyone harassing him.
My plan was simple. Run in, lay AJ’s things in the public space, then go to my room. I would spend the next two weeks until my move-in date avoiding my housemates, packing, and minding my own business. They had other plans.
I came back to all doors locked. My house key could never undo the deadbolts, so I had to call Ash.
Then they confronted me. The very scenario I had been trying to avoid, but this time, they had more ammunition. They’d read my journals in my absence, leafing through them as if they had been studying for a test. This was the second offense of reading my journals. The first, being much more mild, something they said they regretted.
I have to say, I disassociated through a lot of the discussion. I was apparently talking, apologising, say that I meant my apology. I remember only snippets.
Apparently, Arkady was meant to stay away from the conversation, but came back up. “No, I’m not even scared.” He said, taking in my shaking form in the doorway. “This is just funny to me. This is like a soap opera, it’s just funny now. No, I want to watch.”
Me, falling into his arms out of the moving van. Dancing in the rain. Him comforting me after a nightmare. Him, in a rage, after my mother threatened to abandon me through top surgery. He, who sang me a sweet song of mourning after my bird had died. He, who taught me how to cry after so long not knowing how. It had to have been a different person who thought my fear was funny.
“You said you wanted us to help each other heal!” Arkady went on, in a tone filled with such disgust that one would think I’d confessed to drugging his cat for fun. “Is that how you see me? Is that what you think I’m for?”
“It’s just a joke. “Xhax’s voice was clear in my head, high in wonderment.
It was then March’s turn to throw something at me. “After I had gotten fired from Lori’s, you said that you fell asleep with a smile on your face and a song in your heart!”
Actually, I thought, that was after you’d freaked out that you mispronounced the word ‘ambivalent‘ and made it a Whole episode.
“These people aren’t interested in facts. It’s the narrative they want.” I glanced at Xhaxhollari. Clearly, the household couldn’t see him.
I just said I was sorry. The words were hollow on my tongue. There was an expectation that they should be otherwise, but I’m not sure how any of the four of us reached that conclusion. I was also aware that they were giving me two days to find other arrangements. I’d had nowhere else to go, but that clearly wasn’t their problem.
“You can get a hotel,” Arkady informed me icily.
“For two weeks?” Sure, I had a discount through Hilton, but it was based on availability. And they all decided to do this just as RIT students were coming through and looking to quarantine.
Obviously, I was lying about something. Arkady seemed sure of it. “You told me,” Arkady began, spitting the words like an accusation. I think he may have even been pointing at me. “That you got a discount from Hilton that would make any reservation 35 a night! It would be less than six hundred dollars. You can do that.”
I think I just stared at him for that. Even if I were to open my app and show him, he’d likely never be convinced. He had his narrative, what more did he need?
Then there was a barrage of how I’d ‘brought Gaslamp into the house.’ “No. My ex made me believe that. I shouldn’t have passed it onto the rest of you, but I was fooled too. I’m sorry I was the first.” I actually can’t picture my tone here. Was I even the one speaking? I don’t know. I only know I said that last part because March repeated it mockingly back at me.
“‘Oh, I’m sorry I was the first!'” March would make a bad actor. I’d always thought that. I was suddenly caught on the airy, patronizing quality of his voice. He really only had one tone of voice, and I could only describe it as a ‘Your bra-strap is showing’ sort of tone. “See, they’re just making themselves into a victim again! You’re doing it again, Xanthe, and we’re wise to all of your manipulation. And apparently you thought that I put Ash into a ‘Hostage situation’ by threatening to kill myself over the phone for hours when they were on vacation? I was having a breakdown, Xanthe!”
“Your pain is a joke. Your privacy is a joke. A soap opera.” I didn’t see Xhaxhollari’s point just then, but he was still talking at my side. His voice sounded calm, but his wings were arched and tense.
I remember them surrounding me and repeating again and again, as if chanting that I was the abuser was enough to overwrite my memories saying otherwise. They may as well try again, it’d worked before. It was this odd narrative that everything that March had ever done could never be abuse. He had a break down, he had a PTSD flashback, he needed help, and I heartlessly labeled his actions abusive. Meanwhile, my own PTSD was manipulation, my breakdowns were abuse, and who needs support when they could just tell me over and over again that I’m awful?
Ash spoke up, finally. “I ‘think I’m an Unseelie king’? Why did you tell Asra that, other than to damage my relationship with them?”
March chimed in. “Yeah, you have to stop talking about our worlds, Xanthe!”
I winced. I actually did feel real shame over that. I probably would’ve felt more if my conversation in confidence hadn’t been shared. But how else to reach out about the fact that these people assured me that my friends were real? For what reason? Their own validation?
Why were they so intent on suddenly dismissing a reality they’d once endorsed?
March was still talking. “And I have PTSD, too, Xanthe. C-PTSD, in fact!”
“Your enemy is a joke.” Xhax continued.
I laughed. I couldn’t help it. March’s voice sounded just so pompous. My voice carried on, distantly. I couldn’t tell what it was doing. The last twenty minutes of that conversation are lost to me. In fact, most of that night is lost to me. I know I didn’t drink any more wine.
I remember calling Cotton. I remember calling Kaspar. I remember texting my father. Cotton reassured me that he’d known me for much longer than my household, and had never considered me manipulative. He’d been there for April’s fake possession, her fake seizures, her faked blindness. Kaspar, who was distressed at having known none of this prior to that night, saying how these people wouldn’t stand a chance if I had manipulated them. My dad, saying how my housemates were in the wrong for having read my journals again.
It was sinking in.
They’d done it again.
The quotes they’d used, it was all from my journals. More than one. That thought seemed to bleed through in my sleep, to the point where the violation was all that was on my mind the day aft.
It’d turned to daylight. I posted to Facebook, filtering out the cult that’d formed under my roof, “They went through my fucking journals.”
Not even a half hour later, March was outside my door. “We see you playing the victim, Xanthe. You tried to hide from Ash, but it didn’t work. Also, Asra knows how you really now. We told them everything.”
I was frozen in my room. Vex, who had refused to leave my side since last night, cursed under her breath, and began to pack a bag. “If they really knew everything, then what are they doing standing for this shit?” She growled.
March, who claimed not to be the problem but was very much proving to be the instigator, continued to gripe to Ash. “They apologise to our face but then go behind our backs to bitch to Facebook! Apparently, this is all our faults! First they blame Zara, then Seven, and now me again!”
March was playing music from his room, blasting petty break-up songs and what seemed to be Onision’s breakdown. (I think they were attempting to make some sort of comparison?)
My therapist was on the phone with me in what seemed like minutes later. I only remember one part of that conversation. “They went through your fucking journals, Xanthe! And used it against you! You can’t stay another night in that house! Who cares if your friends are real? If they’re not the ones mistreating you, call them!”
Vex was very pointedly packing my journals into my suitcase. I reached for my pendant– it symbolized my heart, but it’d broken earlier this year. I hadn’t yet fixed it; it seemed odd to me to pretend that my heart wasn’t broken.
Xhax’s hand covered mine as I reached for the watch. “Not yet. You need protection, not your heart. Your heart is what’s gotten you into this mess.” He slid my clockwork angel pendant into my palm.
It was from the Infernal Devices series. Ithuriel, the angel, was trapped in a clockwork pendant the protagonist always wore. It was meant to protect her. I’d bought it recently to feel safe.
I stared at him. “I thought you were wanting me to sacrifice myself to save Arkady?”
He shook his head. “You did what you could. He just isn’t there right now. Any more selfless, you won’t have any more self left to lose.”
I slipped the pendant over my head, made my reservation for Collegetown’s Hilton, then fled. When I got to my room, I collapsed on my bed, wanting to sob and–
Just as before I’d met Arkady… no tears came.
I was fictional again.