[This story takes place mostly within the inworld, half of which my ex controlled at this time. The paragraphs in Italics are meant to show that it’s all happening in the shared inworld. In case anyone needs a brief refresher, Kirra is my long-time abuser. Apollo is this ex’s twin, who she had claimed died in the womb. TW: HEAVY EXISTENTIALISM, trial, memory manipulation, abusive relationships, alternate dimension discussion, suicidality, Extreme gaslighting, self-harm, manipulation]
Aberle was the first to figure it out. Out of everyone that had openly griped that ‘everything seems to be about Xanthe’, he was one of the few who knew it was.
This starts to get into the time of that year that’s mostly lost to Xanthe, thus my need to narrate. They were out almost exclusively to spend time with Cotton or to drink. If left alone too long, they had a bad habit of falling into self-destructive thoughts, which led to self-destructive actions, which led to my having to yank their reckless ass back from the front.
Kirra’s ‘you’re not allowed to die’ proclamation had been received as a challenge. Xanthe luckily didn’t seem committed to the idea of suicide– only petty rebellions to attempt to seduce fate into take the choice away from them. They also seemed under the impression that Kirra wouldn’t allow them to die within or without the inworld and that every time they woke up alive was proof of this.
And not proof of a guardian angel on your shoulder keeping you breathing, you sad sod.
Kaspar had already noticed this, through its keen investigative qualities and the fact that Xanthe cannot bear to go too long without a drunken, existential ramble. “Ever see the fake ‘woke’ chaps that talk about how they’re choosing to ‘take the red pill’ out of here? Who the fuck would actually refuse to live in a perfectly fine simulation?”
“Do you remember how in Saints Row 4, Zinyak, the pretentious alien lord, says that he won’t destroy earth if Boss kills themself? But if you choose to do so, you lose the game because it turns out the cunt was lying? He even tries to dissuade you from rescuing your friend. Boss is far too much a badass to fall for that one. I wish I could be like that.”
Aberle was one of the few alters who seemed to prod at the fabric of this increasingly precarious reality. When Kaspar failed to wheedle the truth from Xanthe (other than being referred to two more scenes in the same video game plot), Aberle asked them: “Why is it you that always has to resolve every situation? Sometimes it doesn’t even get bad until you show up. What’s going on?”
It was a pitiful scene. I set it up to reflect the state Xanthe was in when I pulled them from the outside– two wine bottles on the bathroom counter, fresh cuts all over their thighs and arms, a look that seemed somewhere between unsteady and vacant, curled in the bathtub. And Xanthe told him.
It began with the story of Avery, Xanthe’s discovery of their polyamory, then to the incident with JaK floating in the river. Aberle had his usual glibness in the beginning, jokes and sarcastic comments. As the story progressed, about Xanthe being forced to stay in a relationship with Kirra, how Kirra even seemed to boast about her hostages, Aberle seemed to sober. “Why is it Sound and JaK’s family? JaK usually seems to hate you. Sound was friends with Neb, I guess. You are friends with Koji and Prosper kind of likes you as much as he can like people, but… why the Heart family? And the Snow family?”
Xanthe shivered. The tap water had grown lukewarm a while ago, but they’d been having trouble feeling warm in any circumstance. “Sound, JaK, Koji, Romeo, Calisto– they’re happily married, they have families, they’ve been taken in by adoptive parents– they have everything to lose. And me? I’m not even capable of that. I’m a fucked up Steampunk Frankenstein OC living a Lovecraftian nightmare in a location where I can take selfies at fancy bars like I’m someone who can afford therapy. What I have are meager hopes for publishing a cult classic, days off that feel more like a custody agreement, and a bunch of tourists asking me where the fuck to park every day for the rest of my useless existence. What else do I have?”
There was an awkward pause. Aberle had been prepared to dig deep, yet a geyser had sprung out at the first surface break. “Well, you certainly have your candor,” Aberle finally said. That made Xanthe laugh. Xanthe vented a while, about how each day with Kirra was a migraine waiting to happen and how they couldn’t even speak freely anymore. How they had to be at Kirra’s beck and call, then have to attend to a violent or suicidal or both JaK, Prosper, Romeo, Dashiell, or Cecil if they didn’t oblige well enough.
“You’re basically living a life of servitude for a group of people who, statistically, don’t even like you,”Aberle pointed out. Xanthe laughed again. It was a hollow sound. They seemed to be reaching for something self-effacing and witty, but nothing occurred to them. “Phisoxa always did hate the idea of selflessness,” Aberle offered, referencing Xanthe’s infamous creator as a morale boost. “He famously said it was a sign of a ‘lack of self.'”
“It’s not selfless. I’m a broken watch, Phisoxa’s tragically flawed protagonist– I’m no hero. But I just can’t let Kirra win.”
Aberle smiled and crouched next to the tub. Xanthe had less to feel dysphoric about in the inworld, but the instinctual curling over themselves obligated Aberle to keep facing straight ahead towards the wall. “You know, I think you’re here for a reason. It’s like that whole Thysia curse*, right? Every single one of you soul-stealers get stuck with an abuser and turn into either a sacrifice or dedicate their life to vengeance. But Phisoxa engineered you specifically, right? Maybe broken clocks are meant to break the cycle.”
‘Meant to break the cycle.’ Gods, those two were always so close to getting the point. It was to the point where it felt like a silent alarm bell to me. I couldn’t tell if I were frustrated or relieved.
“‘Vengeance or suicide’? I never could pick a binary.” Xanthe said, echoing his reference. “You remember in ‘Prince Lestat’, how it was revealed that all of the vampires were actually connected by a telepathic incorporeal being that was stretched like a fucked up octopus in their minds? And how it could actually influence them and they started going crazy and shit? It’s like… Kirra’s will is just snaking through people like that.” They made waving motions with their hands.
It’s as if they could see it– see the difference between our system and what Kirra had created to be companion, cage, and playground to it.
It was interesting that the two of them were discussing it– trying to understand it, and the people it ‘possessed’ and those it liked to make into a scapegoat. They did find similarities– the people who seemed to be taken over by this were always friends with Kirra. JaK, Romeo, Prosper, etc. The people who were chosen as scapegoats were invariably polyamorous and had, at the time, undeniable parallels (if not alliances) with Xanthe themself.
The theories between the two were endless. They called it ‘The Effect.’ They thought it might have been some sort of vengeance the universe had forged to punish Phisoxa for creating life without being a god. They thought it might have something to do with the Thysia curse (See footnote.) But there was a morale boost within the discussion. It was as if they thought if they could understand it, they could stop it.
Hell, it even gave me a bit of hope. Within the same week, Kaspar and Xanthe were having a conversation about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, which Xanthe suspected themself of having. Kaspar, who had long come to terms with having had the same thing, was discussing its causes and virtues. “‘Manipulation’ has quite the unearned connotation, I find. Polite wording is manipulation. Doing due diligence on culture, astrological signs, and mental disorders is manipulation. I’ve manipulated to raise the confidence of my allies. I’ve manipulated to, say, help my dear ones realize for themselves that they’re being abused.” This was a pointed comment indeed, but Xanthe was well-used to avoiding this particular topic. “I’ve always thought of it ‘Playing the long game.’ It may be useful for turning the tide of public opinion back your way.”
Xanthe had never told Kaspar about Kirra. Kaspar had guessed about the abusive relationship and at one point seen the bruises during the rib-cracking incident, but had no idea of the specifics. Indeed, Kaspar and Kirra had even been in the same room as one another other, with Xanthe and myself pulling every string to make sure they never exchanged words. “What does that all entail? And is that something I could do, or do you think I’m– erm, too autistic?” This is, of course, what came about from Kirra’s ‘Autistics are just sociopaths without the charisma’ diatribes.
Kaspar poured itself and Xanthe a glass of wine and settled in next to them on the settee. “Well, as you remember, public opinion was decidedly not in my favor when I’d ‘driven my spouse to suicide.'” Glasses clinked. Lee’s death had remained a toastable affair since it occurred, an intimate little joke between them. “You know well the disadvantage I faced. They had gone to university, I hadn’t. They had an entire social circle at their disposal, all of whom had never so much as seen my face. The narrative was theirs. Nothing like post-mortem sympathy to get a true mob going.” Xanthe nodded along. Kaspar had struggled the better half of the year to rejoin the Prague queer community and was gaining only steady progress. “I sought companionship wherever I could, particularly to those with large, neutral circles. It’s as if I could see all of the lines binding us– a tangled mess of social politics. People display their hints of dissatisfaction and mostly, people want to feel heard, seen, and valued. I fit myself in wherever I can– it doesn’t matter whether I personally like the person, it’s where they are on the web, then I drop hints of the truth whenever the timing’s right. Then, slowly, people feel the need to defend me when I’m not around; people spread the truth. It’s slow-going, but it never would have happened if I’d simply met the lies head-on.”
“So, you were manipulating people into seeing the truth?” Xanthe surmised.
Kaspar nodded, winked, and poured them another glass. It was one of its many tactics to try to get Xanthe tipsy and allow them to vent, another helpful manipulation of theirs. In fact, one of its current long games was to save Xanthe from whichever abuser they never seemed to reveal. “People do hate being told they’re wrong. But if they believe they’ve arrived at the conclusion themselves, then there’s nothing to be defensive about, is there?”
Xanthe nodded slowly, absorbing this just as I was. There was a sort of zeal, an excitement I sensed, that seemed to leave Xanthe just a bit less dead inside. Their system seemed to be reaching out to try to help, but neither Xanthe or I seemed to know quite what to do with it.
Something indefinable changed the night of Oscar Wilde’s birthday party.
Xanthe had taken it upon themself to invite over Cotton and Kirra, of course, had to chaperone. Cotton had started working a front desk job at Xanthe’s inn after he had graduated [University] and they had taken to pleasantly chatting about it, in the way that Cotton and Kirra would chat about [University] when they had that in common and Xanthe hadn’t. But of course, the situation reversed was simply unacceptable.
No matter; Xanthe was more focused keeping the topic on Oscar Wilde anyway. They were imbibing champagne and watching the 1990’s docudrama, ‘Wilde’, starring Stephen Fry. It really is a delightful film, and Fry hardly even needs to act to play the part. It showed Wilde, the eccentric, pun-loving writer who was being abused by an entitled, irrational, tantrum-prone lover, Bosie, who ruined his life.
After Cotton had shown Xanthe both Gone Girl and Crimson Peak, Xanthe had no one to blame but themself to blame for this particular film choice.
The comparison may not have been lost on Kirra. Maybe it was; people like that always do fail to see themselves as the antagonist. But after the film, Xanthe and Cotton had gotten onto the topic of their shared vocation. How customers tended to react to the hilariously steep staircases, how hopeless tourists were up against Savannahian sweep zones, what sorts of egregious blunders would cause the Front Desk manager to react with ‘Bless your heart!’
The conversation continued 10, maybe 15 full minutes on a topic Kirra couldn’t relate to. She made no effort to comment, and she wasn’t interrupted. It was just simply something she couldn’t pretend to know enough about to talk over people. She stood up and unceremoniously tossed her bag over her shoulder and stomped to the door.
Xanthe sighed. “Darling dearest, leaving already?” It definitely said something about the relationship when terms of endearment were only said dripping with bitterness. “Do you want a goodnight kiss?”
“Not from you!” Kirra shouted back.
Cotton and Xanthe both winced when the door slammed.
When they said goodbye that night, Cotton asked, “Are you uh… going to get yelled at for this later? Because if so, can you two do it through text? Because she has the room next to me now and I have to work tomorrow.”
Xanthe laughed. “Sure thing. We just probably can’t bring up the inn in front of her anymore. You know, like anything else that life is too short to fight with her about. The inn, Five Guys burgers, racism, polyamory–”
“The Dark Knight,” Cotton cut in, referencing a surprisingly heated debate Cotton and Kirra both had over the popular film that caused Xanthe, an unwilling audience to this, make the Mirror’s Edge protagonist jump off a building over, and over, and over…
Xanthe laughed again, then sighed, leaning against their rod iron front gate. They seemed lost in thought for a moment. I tried to reach for their line of thought, but it was only replaying Kaspar’s ‘long game’ conversation with them and the realization that Wandyr, Sound’s youngest child, was due to be born sometime at the end of the month. “… Actually. No. No, we can talk about what ever the fuck we want.”
Cotton blinked. “We can?”
“Yeah. I got a plan.” Xanthe winked and shut the door.
Oh, gods, no.
Their thoughts were racing. I couldn’t follow it. There would be a flash of Oscar Wilde in jail, Kaspar saying ‘ if they believe they’ve arrived at the conclusion themselves, then there’s nothing to be defensive about, is there?’, a timeline– no, a deadline? A line from the ‘Wilde’ film. “I call it De Profundis. It means, ‘From the depths.'”
They opened their laptop, opened a new Word document, and began to type. “Kirra, If you are reading this, I’m breaking up with you, and blocking you on all accounts. I do still love you, but that’s more curse than choice, as has been most of this. But as it stands, and has stood since Kirra, I can’t be in a relationship with you. Unlike you, when I say, “I’m done”, it actually means I am done. Not that I want you to grovel.”
I watched in amazement as the thoughts that Xanthe kept locked away spilled freely from their fingers. Even when the haze of wine wore away, they were secured to the front, as if every sentence typed was sewing a stitch. It was something so cathartic for them that I felt guilty for thinking– What would this mean for the system as a whole?
I discussed the situation with Apollo. He went quiet for some time, silhouetted by the street lamps outside the window he was perched in front of. “So, what? Xanthe is going to break the two worlds apart and just take the people they like the best and leave the rest of us to die or whatever the fuck?” he said in disgust.
“I don’t know how it works.” I said quietly. “But it makes sense that this is what Xanthe would be attempting. Maybe to just manipulate everyone to outside of Kirra’s circle of influence.” As I spoke, I knew that this is what Xanthe was planning. But would this mean that some people would be left behind?
Apollo seemed to echo my thoughts. “Oh, that’s great, then. Anyone that hasn’t managed to get close to Xanthe or anyone Xanthe cares about is just shit out of luck, then.”
I didn’t know what to say. The coming weeks were a slow progress of Xanthe continuing to write their own version of ‘De Profundis.’ I overheard them telling Cotton, “Oh, well, I can hold out to when your parents take us to dinner in December so it won’t be awkward,” so I knew it wasn’t to be immediate. By mid-November, they’d finished their literary pre-emptive strike and had it saved as a Word document– to be ready to send en-masse at the next tantrum Kirra had.
And what’s more– Xanthe’s plan did appear to be working. They’d made friends with Ethniu, who made friends with JaK and could quell his more ambitious meltdowns. They made an alliance with Sumire, even helping him to escape the influence of his abuser, and convinced him to keep Cecil on permanent suicide watch. Romeo was going through therapy.
But I was terrified. Would this break mean that so many of my system would lose their friends and partners with no explanation? Could we even survive without our two worlds together? What would that even look like? Could I even maintain being able to see them, know them, without being able to mitigate contact through the two worlds?
Apollo seemed unsettled by the entire thing, too. “What if we brought Neb back instead? Kirra will probably feel better if Neb comes back.”
I’d stared at him. He’d referenced me as ‘what remained of Neb’ a few times. Did he think I could just find the other pieces and just merge together like we were bubbles? “I don’t think there’s anything left to bring back.”
Apollo bit his lip thoughtfully. “I have… been to the other plane… Sometimes I see out of those other eyes.”
Was he saying what I thought he was saying? That he would be able to be a walk-in soul for Kirra’s body just as Xanthe had been for Neb’s? After a few more discussions, I asked him. “Well, not if everyone just abandons me!” He snapped.
It was on my mind until about early December. Then, when Xanthe was away in the inworld, I opened their document and began to edit it. Not only that, I’d occasionally talk to Cotton and other friends and say, “I’m only cutting Kirra off for a few months. I think she’ll be a whole different person by the end of it!”
That was the damning thing I’ve ever done to this system.
EPILOGUE: (August of 2020)
Xanthe had read the my version of their break-up letter over about five times now, occasionally murmuring a curse under their breath.
“I’m sorry. I thought they were actually separate people, just as you did.” I said it for probably the fourth time, but it was as if the words were ricocheting. We both preferred the hotel room at an icy temperature, but the air conditioning was suddenly penetrating bone. “If I had known, I never would have–”
“Do you fucking REALIZE that I considered that my biggest point of strength for years?” Xanthe was very nearly yelling, running their fingers through their hair. “I almost got a tattoo in its memory because I thought, for years, that I’d gotten rid of her– him– those two? That one? FUCK.” They curled in a twitching motion.
“Listen,” I was trying my luck and I knew it. But it was a knee-jerk reaction when I felt that I might have been losing someone. It was time to argue. “In my position, with what I knew, wouldn’t you have done the same thing?”
“You don’t fucking get it,” they snapped. “I left [Arkady] alone with them once. I slept with Apollo. It kept causing me literal fucking breakdowns and I had no idea why. I never would’ve done that if I had known–” they drew in a shaky breath. They were trying to sob, I knew. They’d tried crying a few times since we were kicked out to this chain hotel in southern Rochester. But it seemed that since Xanthe had split with Story, they once again lost the ability. With the failure of doing such a thing, sputtering like a flooded engine, they threw a remote at where they thought I was standing.
I’d try to have the conversation several more times. Once, when they were lying amongst their boxes in the apartment that didn’t yet have electricity. Again, when they were at their hotel job. Then finally, when it was the beginning of autumn and I introduced them to the song “Achilles Come Down.”
After listening to it that entire week, they wrote a message on the bathroom mirror, taped to the glass. “Okay. I’m listening. When do you want to talk?”
NOTE: Xanthe was in the inworld the entire weekend I wrote this. During the editing process, they had me delete some of the evidence I had that they were casually suicidal, including getting drunk on a roof and playing chicken on their moped. They laughed and said, “Xhax, that wasn’t me being suicidal. Sometimes I’m just fucking stupid.” So, I suppose that’s comforting.
*The Thysia curse is a central plotline within our inworld. Thysia (possibly the name of our core) was said to have had her soul split due to a horribly abusive relationship. As a result, pieces of her soul scattered everywhere and would occasionally appear within certain people. Phisoxa was born with it, and passed it down to Xanthe when he gave them part of his soul. ‘Thysias’ are known for having bleak and solitary lives, driven either to a sacrificial suicide or violent madness by an abuser who is modeled after the personality of the original abuser. The legend often sites these depressing statistics of, ‘What will it be, suicide or vengeance on the world?’, which Xanthe definitely resents.