Crimson Peak came out later in that same year that my relationship got really bad. Lucille Sharpe was just one more version of my abusive girlfriend that stalked my nightmares. I remember actually getting a phantom pain when she stabbed Thomas in the face.
That’s how I’ll go, I thought bleakly. Blankly staring as my blood ruins my jabot.
Cotton had taken April and I to see this film, too– since showing us Gone Girl wasn’t enough foreshadowing. He knew the situation more then, though. Months before that movie had been released in the autumn, I had finally confessed the true extent of my relationship and mental state.
I’m sure I come up in his therapy sessions a lot.
Cotton was a film student, at the time, studying to be a screen director. He was actually producing an entire short film. If you don’t have a reference for how difficult that is, just understand that there’s a reason so many Hollywood directors develop a cocaine habit.
The night that I spontaneously decided that it was confession time, he was on set.
There were a million different things running through his mind. He was making endless notes on a pressurizing time-crunch as he glanced down at his phone to see my page full of text. He later told me that his line of thought went something like, “Okay, I need to test the lighting, the equipment’s setting up, does this actor have her script, Xanthe is cutting themself…–???” He quickly texts me back, telling me that he’ll be over sometime after 10pm, then forcibly put that line of thought on the back-burner.
I knew Neb used to self-harm. I hadn’t really seen the appeal– until the fear was so thick in my veins, so debilitating, that I couldn’t even move. All I could do sometimes was just lay in bed, curled, watching my phone for any bit of news.
Time kept skipping ahead. After having signed up for the inn job, wherein I had to always be back onsite by 10pm, I would have constant nightmares of time having moved on without me. I’d be walking home, glance at the clock– 9:45pm. I’d look again. a minute later– 10:26pm.
Life became that. Just a blur of fear, where glancing at the calendar or the time would startle me. Sometimes my surroundings would take me aback. I’d be somewhere it made sense to be. Work, a café, my home– and think, ‘I don’t remember getting here.’
I don’t remember how it started, the self-harming. I feel like I was drinking so often, during this time, that my card started to get declined in bars. And it didn’t cost anything but blood to self-harm, so…
When Cotton arrived, he was disheveled. I probably should’ve checked to see what kind of situation he was in to dump that on him– a skill I’d only learn later in life. He began by explaining to me what he had been doing, apologizing for being late, then ended the whirlwind of greeting with, “Are you okay?”
I explained to him that I didn’t start this habit as a prelude to suicide. It was just to calm me down. And hell, it’s cheaper than alcohol, and both are cheaper than therapy. It wasn’t deep, just enough to hurt– get that rush of dopamine, feel the throbbing pain ground me for the next few hours. He listened intently– clearly worried, but Cotton, for as privileged of a life he has led, has always been remarkably unjudgmental. That, and I was pretty blasé in my tone, throwing a few jokes in occasionally.
He asked me what was going on– why I was doing this– but I knew it’d take me a few hours to explain all of it.
“We’re uh… We’re going to have to meet at a bar for this. Trust me.”
I didn’t like to hide things– to be dishonest. Not to actual friends, like Cotton. But a life as incredulous as mine made casual deception an unfortunate necessity. This life of magic and alternate dimensions had isolated me, barred me from actually discussing the depth of my horror.
I figured people would be less empathetic when I started mentioning vampires and people turning into animals. But if anyone was going to listen to me outside of my head, it would be Cotton.
We agreed to meet at The Grey. I remember him pausing halfway out the door. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m still worried about you. But I think I’d be a lot more concerned about you cutting yourself if you weren’t so chill about it.”
I’ve always loved that he said that about me.
The Grey was a quintessential downtown restaurant. The building used to be a racially segregated Greyhound bus station and now is owned by a black woman, which is still one of my favourite power moves in the food industry. The bar was also made to look like a sleek 50’s diner.
Such cheek. I love it.
“So, essentially, do you remember when you first met ‘me’, and I was going by ‘Neb’?”
Cotton did. He recounted how he had first heard Neb’s name mentioned and had responded with, “I don’t know what that is!” He hadn’t known Neb hardly at all. I was who sought him out.
We’d ordered drinks. I explained to him I woke up one day in December of 2012 and just wasn’t Neb anymore. “I think that’s where it started. I honestly think that [April] thinks I’ve become someone else just to spite her.” The condensation that gathered on an average Savannah cocktail could hydrate a city. The icy glass felt like a hug in my palm.
I wasn’t only flirting with alcoholism– I was climbing out of its window whenever its husband came home. I’d discussed getting therapy covered with my insurance provider. I was given a questionnaire about my alcohol habits. At one point, she had asked me, “Has any problems in your relationships been caused by your drinking?”
I had answered, “No, actually, it’s the other way around.” Professionalism be damned, she couldn’t stop herself from laughing.
“Well, I can understand that you feel different,” he replied levelly. “But it’s not like you’re a different person entirely. You just reinvented yourself. And no, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. You reinvented yourself a lot, but it’s still you.”
I frowned. He wasn’t understanding, but who would? “I really don’t feel like I am. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Neb’s life is someone else’s entirely.”
“For all intents and purposes, you’re right. You are a different person.” Cotton relented. It was clear he didn’t agree, but he had just signed up to live with April. He would’ve already learned that some things weren’t worth the argument. “So, you’re saying that [April] doesn’t like that you’ve changed, and doesn’t like that you’re polyamorous now. Have you two ever thought that… maybe you should go your separate ways?” He was saying it gently, which I thought was adorable.
“That, Cotton, is a wonderful idea.”
“Do you want to break up with her?” He took one of the last sips of today’s alcoholic punch; it seemed almost all ice water by then.
“Well, I can’t.”
I inclined my head. “Order another drink.”
“Just trust me.”
Cotton’s eyebrows raised, two ginger little caterpillars shooting up the bare slope of his forehead. His grass-green eyes flickered around the bar, trying to find anything else to focus on other than me. It wasn’t terribly hard to do. He had recently tried to court a waiter there, a mustachioed and sharp-looking charmer with a voice that should have been selling something. Cotton was plenty willing to buy, but the man had already been sold. “To a woman. He made sure to specify that,” Cotton had relayed to me. Because dreams are that easy to crush. Yet this plucky young lad still was more than happy to get him another glass.
It was a rare weekend– April was out of town, in some anime convention or another. I was allowed a break, to be in public with someone without her express permission.
I waited patiently until his glass was refilled before candidly continuing. “What if I told you my partner was holding my imaginary friends hostage?”
He choked on his drink.
In truth, I wasn’t so much comfortable with the term ‘imaginary friends.’ I’ve thought that maybe we were ghosts from other worlds and times. Maybe just some sentient, cosmic abortions possessing a body. But I knew how everyone would see it.
My poor friend coughed, trying to recover from that one. “Remember the other night…” he started, “when I was on the film set and you texted me to tell me you were cutting yourself, and I said I would’ve freaked out if you ‘weren’t so chill about this’?”
“Yes. I loved that, actually.”
“Well, you’re really stretching the limit of that.” It was a joking tone, but I could tell he was perturbed. Maybe I could avoid talking about the fact that vampires were involved– for tonight.
“You know those friends in Europe [April] and I talk about so much? Sound and JaK and all of them? I don’t know if they’re real. We both hang out with them, we both have the same memories of them… But lately, it seems like she can control them. Can control us.” I downed my own drink quickly, fighting back the icy feeling in my gut. I hated having to admit aloud that half my life may have been in my head; that I wasn’t even created in this world. The confession of my delusions was like a nail in a casket for my poor shattered fourth wall. “To be fair, they’re still my friends. They’re people. They have their own personalities, their own souls; they’re separate from me. They just don’t have bodies. And I don’t discriminate against people based on their bodies. Or lack thereof. And I didn’t know I was making them up. That we were. These friends, I had known for years. I thought they were all completely real, until two months ago.”
Cotton was nodding slowly, nursing his drink. Almost as if he were coaxing it to brave through this insanity with him. “How would you do this? Like, would you and her just… sit in a room, hold hands, and… simultaneously hallucinate?”
“Oh, Cotton, that’s just silly.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. I was teasing him now and he knew it. “Oh, yeah. Of course. Wouldn’t want to say anything silly, here.”
Cute. “We’d just… all know the same things, somehow, as if we were all watching the latest installments in some fantastical world. We wouldn’t even need to talk in between– I would see it all in my head. I really wish I could describe to you how immense this world is. Between Neb, [April], and I, we’ve been in this world for seven years!” To be honest, I was quite impressed with myself. Over the years, people had questioned my seemingly too-absurd friends and called them ‘fake.’ As if they were a common catfish account. Please. I had denied their claims; not only because I was seeing this happen before my very eyes, but because I thought I’d have to be a bloody genius to keep the lives of one-hundred or more people perfectly straight.
I suppose my subconscious takes more the credit for that.
The oysters have arrived; half a dozen on a half shell, plump and glistening over ice. I had been craving the Grey’s oysters for a solid month and Cotton seemed delighted for something to do with his hands; quite the fidgetier, he was. I was sure my tale wasn’t helping. We divided the oysters up amongst ourselves before he prompted me once more. “I’m sorry, continue.”
I nodded. “Things were content like that for a while. Some of them would hate me, some would love me. Some have punched me in the face when I’ve mouthed off too much. They’d interact amongst themselves, get married, have children. The people I saw sometimes hated me, rejected me, I…– Well, there are some who don’t even like Oscar Wilde. These are clearly their own people.”
“Well, there doesn’t seem to be any harm to it… Kind of… Have you ever considered therapy?” Cotton asked bluntly, tilting another half-shell into his face.
I frowned at him. “You’re the third one to ask me that this month.”
He flashed me a crooked smile. “I’m sorry, are we being too subtle?”
“You think you’re clever.” I arched an eyebrow. “One of them bought me my violin. You know, my $750 one.”
Cotton blinked at me. “How?”
“No idea. Maybe I run a meth business in my fugue states. We both know the inn doesn’t pay me enough.” That was one of the theories I had considered. I’d been watching too much Breaking Bad lately. I still have no idea how Vex was able to pull off such a big purchase.
Cotton paused for a long time. “Are your friends looking for any more friends to buy gifts for?” he asked hopefully.
I honestly had no idea if they could. “Careful, it’s all fun and games until you piss [April] off. Remember when I was beginning to realize my polyamorous tendencies?”
“And [April] had a conniption. Yeah, she may have mentioned it. The word ‘cheater’ also may or may not have been mentioned.”
“Harlot. Hussy. Slut. You know, the usual.” See, Cotton laughed, but he had yet to realise: Most of his earthly possessions depended on April not losing her mind and setting this house ablaze. “Okay, she freaked out, and then what happened?”
Here goes. “Well, I was beginning to realize that perhaps relationships were not for me. That perhaps I could just do with flings and in-the-moment romances, and I didn’t want to drag her along. So. I suggested that we break up… And… A-And… Well…” I told him about JaK’s near-death in the river, how I seemed to occupy two places at once, how it became clear that April was controlling everything.
“Mm.” Cotton pursed his lips. It was clear he could feel the ghost of my fear, but this definitely wasn’t a realm he was familiar enough with to comment on. “I think we both need another cocktail,” he suggested with an exhale.
What a good friend. “I had to start groveling. Every shred of pride I had was lost that night, pleading, promising, begging. And. Well. You know. Grieving.” We both ordered another round.
“Did JaK die?” My friend asked with some hesitation.
I shook my head. “I ran to the scene. It was… well, any therapist would catch a fat paycheque from it. There was blood everywhere. But when I agreed to stay with [April], he ended up okay…” I caught his puzzled look. “It’s a supernatural world. People can survive way more than makes sense for them to.”
“Ah. But now, she’s holding your friends hostage.”
“Even worse than that, Cotton, I hadn’t known. She mercilessly smashed my fourth wall into pieces, right in front of me. I had no idea that–… there was ever a difference between my friends and I. That we were in different worlds! That I had a body and they didn’t. I didn’t ask for my body. I didn’t ask to be in reality. I mean. Come now, Cotton. Look at me!” He did. He saw a dandy, no more than twenty-two years old in age, wearing a top-hat and a gleaming brocade frock coat. My top hat, as ridiculous as the rest of me, was on the seat beside me. My color-scheme, dramatic make-up included, echoed the blue and gold pocket watch pendant around my neck– my heart, in the inworld. I was speaking with an English accent; one I had to learn in order to feel more ‘in-character.’ Very clearly had I walked out of a bloody novel. “Sometimes I feel damned to a world I never belonged in.”
I took a few stiff sips of my drink when it finally came, increasingly aware of the tormented look in my eyes. Suddenly, I felt exhausted. Dry-mouthed. Drained. “And you stay with her…” Cotton surmised, “because you’re afraid she’ll kill your friends if you don’t.”
I nodded emphatically. The reality was there. I wasn’t immortal. I wasn’t invincible. I had a kryptonite, a weakness, that kept me in control like puppet strings. And now Cotton knew. “Well, if you were anyone else, I would’ve asked for the cheque about five minutes ago.”
“And you signed a lease with the source of all my madness. How does that feel?”
There were the barest traces of a grimace on Cotton’s face. It was only a week before they’d all moved in together that April decided to get buzzed and rant about… You know, minorities.
At first, it was only women. “I could never live with a girl! They always want to sit there and talk. Like, imagine, me getting home from work and whatever girl roommate I have is like ‘Hey, do you want to beer?’ NO, I DON’T WANT A FUCKING BEER, FUCK YOU!” Then she decided to turn the rants against Asians. “They all just cluster together like they think they’re better than everyone. It’s like I can feel them judging me. Like, I’m sorry, but you need to speak English if you’re going to be here.”
That same night, Cotton had meekly informed me that their third roommate happened to be Asian.
“This is the person who’s responsible for part of my rent,” he said dully.
“And the person who controls whether my friends live or die.” I held my glass up for him to toast it. “And this is why we drink.”
The next day, while hungover, I received a call from my bank asking to verify my recent purchases because we’d had that much fun. I’ll never forget the incredulous, concerned tone asking, “What’s ‘The Grey’???”
Cotton is still a wonderful friend I speak to often. He would’ve been a great resource for the Faerie Fantasy House to get perspective from, if their interest was ever facts and not just their own narrative for discrediting their latest victim. He also does stand-up comedy, because for some odd reason, his life doesn’t revolve around yours truly.
Check it out below!