Pound of Flesh. (February of 2020)

[Trigger Warnings: Alcoholism, drug abuse, nasty arguments, power dynamics, brief mentions of suicide, four-on-one hen-pecking, severe gaslighting, unintentional self-harm.]

[Flashback: Inworld, 2015.]

Xhaxhollari

I wish saving this selfish world from April’s influence was all epic battles, flashes of light, a fight between life and death. But no, mostly it was Xanthe, Aberle, and I arguing with people.

The best way to break Gaslamp’s influence seemed to be the power of debate. It made sense, on some sort of odd level. April had trained us to debate to save her life, the lives of our friends, etc. And for some reason, as soon as those under April’s influence began to believe that their sense of will had been compromised, it was as if the brain deemed them safe enough to be copied over. Mostly as NPCs in the inworld, sometimes as full-fledged alters.

See, ‘system-hopping’ is a dangerous and inaccurate idea of alters being able to ‘hop’ from one system to another. This isn’t possible with DID. But our brain, with the profound reluctance to ever truly let anyone go, has been introject-heavy with other people’s characters and/or entities for as long as I can remember. Part of the brain’s process was to test how sentient these people had become outside of their original creator.

Some could not be enlightened and needed to be left behind. Some of April’s and Ash’s characters were rejected, to the point wherein the inworld doesn’t remember them ever having existed.

Some needed convinced. They would deny it, at first. Some would have nasty fights with Xanthe, Aberle, or myself disguised as Xanthe. One of those were with JaK, April’s favorite tool of torture.

See, Xanthe actually liked JaK. The complicated past those two shared has hindered their ability to become good friends as of yet, but that fact added that extra layer of pressure when Xanthe actually liked who was attacking them on any given day. And, after JaK had successfully made Aberle break down crying, it was Xanthe’s turn to try.

“He likes you more than me, though,” they warned Aberle, at first. “And he’s going to be pissed with you at the thought of you sending me to go talk some sense into him.”

Aberle wiped his eyes. He was seated at his kitchen table, scrolling through his phone to find someone who could comfort him that wasn’t tangentially related to JaK. “I don’t care if he’s pissed at me. I don’t care if he fucking hates me for the rest of his life, Xanthe. He’s miserable and under [April]’s control and I just want him free.”

Xanthe bit their lip. Aberle was in love with JaK. Granted, Xanthe admired JaK. But I could feel them contemplating how much harder this would be if they too were in love with JaK– if they had to fight with and possibly manipulate him just to save him, the pressure would probably drive them insane.

“JaK, fucking– think a little!” Years of arguing with April had left us with a persistent and cutting way of quarreling. Xanthe was following him through Prosper’s house, dogging him as he did chores.

“Oh, great, now you’re calling me stupid,” JaK said cuttingly. They had made it to the library on the lower level. It was amazing how passive-aggressively the man could steam a curtain.

“Yeah, and I’ve called you worse! You’ve legitimately called the cops on your own spouse before because she was goofing off while streaking in her own closed-off yard! You went off on Ethniu, of all people, just for suggesting you talk things out! Your oldest kid came out as non-binary and you were pissed because you related it to Sound! Legitimately, any time the tides turn against someone, it’s like you can’t control yourself! Have you ever wondered why?”

The steam was combining with the smoke from JaK’s hands. Xanthe wisely pressed themself to the nearest bookshelf– JaK wasn’t suicidal enough to risk torching Prosper’s book collection. “Thank you for reminding me what a piece of shit I am, Xanthe. I really love seeing my spouses and my children cry.” The handle of the steamer was actually warping.

“I don’t think you are, that’s the thing!” Xanthe pressed. “I’ve seen you around your kids, I’ve seen you actually work through problems with your spouses when there’s not such– an influence around. Like with Romeo and Koji–”

JaK whirled on Xanthe just then. “I was a piece of shit before whatever happened with Romeo and Koji!” he snapped. “Yes, you’re right, I often feel like I don’t even know why I do what I do, and sometimes, I barely even remember it! But sometimes, it feels like me! That’s what you’re not getting!” He glanced down at the steamer. The handle had warped nearly in half and the machine was sputtering pitifully. He tossed it aside, the sudden moment making Xanthe jump a bit. “I told Neb to go kill herself. I yelled at her at Calisto’s wedding. Over something dumb… I was just… stressed, and being an asshole. And she was breaking down and I didn’t understand why and wanted her to stop. And a year later, I had to look at my spouse as he cried over his dead friend who did exactly that!” He had to pause to swallow tears.

Xanthe was frozen, mesmerized by JaK’s guilt. They’d been trying to argue with JaK for days– like if they could just find the right words, JaK might be able to escape and survive. It’s a habit that I unfortunately have as well. “I don’t think–…” They’d tried to argue, but let the words die on their lips.

“It’s not– that I hate you–” JaK’s voice was shaking. His eyes were blinking rapidly at tears. “I mean, you’re such an asshole,” he laughed a little, then. Xanthe nodded in emphatic agreement. “But the whole–what they say about you killing her and taking her place… I don’t believe that. But I can’t stand looking at you because you’re the ghost of what I did and I feel like it’s my fault.” The sentence ended in a small sob. “I did that. Not some influence, not some curse.”

Xanthe was silent and motionless for probably a full minute. Crying did tend to make Xanthe shut down. Maybe there was even a little bit of guilt that they’d pushed JaK that far. “I don’t think it’s your fault. I think Neb was on her way out anyway, considering–…” I was proud of Xanthe for successfully avoiding saying that the fault, was in fact, April’s. That never did end well, no matter how true it might have been. “But I think there’s been a further influence lately. And I’m not saying that as an excuse– I feel like you feel it too. And either way, I don’t feel like you’re your mistakes. If you could just keep an eye on it, keep an open mind, see when it feels like you have a choice and when you don’t, then I feel like everyone’s lives will get a lot easier.”

JaK stared at Xanthe for a long moment. “Could… you get me the spare steamer? It’s in the second floor closet, next to the bathroom.”

Xanthe took their time in doing precisely that. It helped that they had to look up what exactly a steamer looked like when it wasn’t warped and falling apart. By the time they’d gotten back, JaK had calmed down. He wiped his eyes and took the steamer. “Give me a few minutes to finish up here. I’ll meet you in the kitchen make you a snack or something.” The best apology that Xanthe was going to get.

Xanthe smiled wearily. “You don’t have to do that.” Then their opportunistic nature kicked in. “But bacon-wrapped scallops would improve morale!”

It took another week, but something about JaK arguing with Koji caused him to pause and realize what was going on. Suddenly, I could feel him. He was someone I could pull the strings of, someone I could sense like an organ in a body. He texted Xanthe. “I think I see what you mean.”

Xanthe had read the text and nearly collapsed in their chair. Thank gods. JaK would survive. He would escape.

[February, 2020. Rochester, New York.]

Xanthe:

“So, the thing is, I don’t think I’m an alcoholic,” I was talking to Cotton on my mobile– shivering lightly as I walked along Crosman Terrace. “Honestly, I think I’m an alcohol enthusiast.”

Cotton started laughing. Not just a chuckle– I was apparently the funniest thing he’s heard all week. I waited, very patiently, I thought, as Cotton went into near-hysterics over this. “All I can picture– is… the people from ‘Intervention’ dragging you away– and– and– You just–” Cue the laughing again. “–saying– ‘Alcohol enthusiast’!”

“I think you’re laughing too hard.” I circled the block again as he had his fun. He had a point. I knew it then and I know it now– and you, as my audience, should know that I reference alcohol a ridiculous amount.

The truth was, I was in a house full of addicts and I was one of them. But I’d been the only one I’d been discriminated against lately, because my drug of choice was the odd one out.

See, I’d made some dumb joke about my washing my Sertraline pill down with Franzia’s White Zinfandel and how that was the vibe of the week. I remember this very clearly. I was on the couch in the living room and Ash was on the stairs, heading up. “This is where I’m at this week,” I’d said. “Washing my depression pill down with wine.”

This apparently pissed Ash off. See, Ash has an alcoholic mother. And I’m not downplaying that trauma, but there was clearly a bias when they laid into me. “You know, you’re not supposed to drink alcohol on depression meds! At all!” They’d momentarily exploded into this, since March and possibly Arkady were in earshot. Ash had an odd habit of not saying anything about what problem they had with you until they had a physical posse around them.

“I just did,” I replied in what was clearly a self-destructive attempt to make Deborah the crisis counselor proud. But I did go ahead and check online about what they said about depression meds and alcohol. Alcohol, I’ll admit, isn’t the most inherently safe drug of choice. Between alcohol poisoning, dehydration, liver damage, the sheer amount of sugar, and the depressing aspects of it, it could be as much a killer as it was relief. It just so happens that it was the only thing that’s ever worked long-term for me. Ash was hovering on the stairs– perhaps waiting for March and Arkady to join them in their haphazard campaign against me.

After scrolling through about three different results on Google, I said, “Oh, hey. You’re right. A lot of sources say not to do alcohol or weed when you’re on mental health meds.” I read this aloud, probably not lacking in arrogance.

Ash’s eyebrows met together in a glare at me. The look that met with me was sheer vitriol.

And it’s true. You’re not supposed to do weed or alcohol with most depression meds. Does that stop the majority of the population? No. But this is the battlefront Ash chose for the day.

I’ll never forget how their eyes narrowed on those stairs. They almost seemed dangerous in that moment. I somehow sensed my insolence would cost me something, but that was probably a leftover form of paranoia from my days in dealing with April. Not from dealing with them, surely! Not charming, sweet Ash, yes?

We were actually to have a ‘metamour’s weekend’ somewhat soon after the January breakdown. Arkady and March would be going to the aforementioned cabin and I’d switched a shift to have both Friday and Saturday off, for a change. It felt like a relief to actually get to spend time with Ash. The last time we had one-on-one time for fun was sometime in December, wherein a clip of us ice-skating still plays on the local news occasionally. The thing was, Ash had at first paid me so much attention that it was difficult to shake off their advances when they first met me in Savannah. The past year of neglect was a contrast that had been startling to me. But tonight, we were spending quality time together!

We were going to spend a pleasant time at dinner over at the Blue Wolf, then I would show them the BBC Sherlock episode of ‘The Lying Detective’ so they would understand where I was coming from. As you may guess, I was still utterly traumatized by what happened as a result of a thrifting excursion.

And it might have been Xhaxhollari’s way of talking me out of suicide, looking back on it.

See, in this episode, Sherlock and Watson are temporarily not on speaking terms after Watson’s wife died. Sherlock, as a result, has been slowly unraveling and going on a manic bender, deciding to focus all of his intellectual energies into proving a local celebrity is a serial killer.

He looks absolutely unhinged and is proven wrong about a detail and, therefore, Watson thinks the entire thing was Sherlock’s manipulative delusion, snaps, and beats his best friend to a pulp. But the thing is… Sherlock ends up being right and is nearly the serial killer’s next victim.

Watson, only when he realises that he knows Sherlock better than this, runs to his rescue just in the nick of time to save his friend. And as I prepared myself to potentially battle one of the great loves of my life to make him see that Gaslamp had returned, this episode was a source of inspiration. And for some reason, I sensed that the surest way to have the household on my side was by trying to, at first, convince Ash.

Damn, easy to tell I wasn’t doing well. I don’t even think I fucking contoured.

Well, I had a formula to this. Obviously, alcohol helps me express myself. So, while we were out, I would be making my way through the required amount of cocktails required for me to start laying down the foundation of my theory, then we’d go home, where they said they’d watch the episode with me. “I’m really excited for you to see it. There’s a lot in there that perfectly describes my mental state and I want to try to run some things by you.”


Yes, it has, in fact, been a lifelong habit where I take people by the hand, show them a film or episode, and say, ‘These are my emotions.’

There uh. There might be a theme, here.

I don’t remember a lot of our hanging out at the Blue Wolf. But I do remember that night– I’d tried starting up the episode, but Ash said that they wanted to go to bed. I frowned. “Go… to bed? As in, have sex? Do you want to?”

Part of me was annoyed, but part of me thought that might have needed to be part of the transaction. As if I could renew my subscription to them caring about what I had to say if we–

“No, I’m tired,” Ash clarified. Fine. Fine. We’d see the episode tomorrow. Then I awoke tomorrow, walked downstairs, and was surprised– more than I should have been, honestly– to see two people.

Ash had invited Zara during our fucking one-on-one ‘metamour’s weekend.’ I stared at Zara blankly. I knew what happened last time that I gave her one crumb of vibe, so I looked at Ash instead. “Hey, sorry, I didn’t tell you,” they said, “I thought that since you were working today, I’d hang out with Zara.”

I blinked slowly and silently counted to five. “I was scheduled to work today,” I reminded them. “I told you that I switched shifts with Tanner, to spend time with you.”

“Oh.” I couldn’t quite read Ash’s expression. They looked from Zara to me. I couldn’t tell if I were imagining it, but they looked more embarrassed when they glanced at Zara, as if they were sheepish for me interrupting the two of them. “Well, since Zara already came all this way, we can all hang out?”

“No, thanks for offering. I probably ought to work.” The day was already lost. Try to enjoy the day with both of them, then I’d accidentally give off ‘vibes.’ That, and I didn’t feel like being talked over and/or analyzed all fucking day. If I asked Zara to go home because Ash and I already had plans, then I was a villain. Social politics had pinned me down and I hated feeling so fucking powerless.

I texted Tanner when I returned to my room. “Hey, I can work this evening after all.”

Well, there was always Arkady.

See, I’d abstained from confronting Arkady about my theory for a few days after my suicide attempt. (I apparently deemed that long enough????) I sent him an email, explaining how since we’d freed March from Gaslamp’s grasp, it was obviously centering more on Zara lately. I wrote him an obnoxiously long email about all of the incidents I had witnessed wherein Zara’s presence was the common denominator, but told him to read it when he was ready.

I’ve posted a snippet of it below if you’re curious, but it’s not required reading.

Both of the instances of censoring are Ash’s name.

Since Ash’s previous instance was particularly obvious, I thought this was a done deal. Obviously, this was Gaslamp. And since I couldn’t see or admit that Ash was in the centre of each incident, it had to be around Zara.

I was also in denial that Arkady was capable yelling at me. If it wasn’t a curse, it could have just been him, and that wasn’t anything I wanted to face.

It was during Arkady’s and my much-needed date night that I brought it up. We weren’t planning to go out anywhere and had mostly planned to drink and watch Netflix together. “Hey, did you read my email? I know it was long, but I think it really helps explains a lot of the fuckery that’s been going on lately.”

“I really don’t want to talk about it tonight,” Arkady dismissed. My dumbass was apt to take this as a challenge.

“I think we need to. Especially with all that’s happened. I’m afraid if we just leave it, it’s going to fester, then [March] or someone will corner me in the kitchen with another–”

“Xanthe,” he sounded tired, as if disappointed or even mildly disgusted that I was trying to figure this out. “Nothing is going on.”

“I seem to remember you saying that last spring, as well.” I reminded him.

He uh. Didn’t like that.

He responded by cancelling the date we’d planned and wanting to spend time alone. I was stung by this. Hell, in my inworld, this battle did lead to vitriol, to venom, to fire, and sometimes even violence. But generally, people didn’t walk away from each other.

The perceived minor abandonment was such a shock that I almost wanted him to scream at me again, so that we’d actually be talking. And it sounds weird, but I almost would have preferred the scorching of being yelled at over the ice and the silence. Almost. If I were the only one it would’ve scorched.

I went back to my room. Asra had texted me about something and, remembering how this kind soul had showed up mid-panic attack to bring me wine, I trauma-dumped them.

“Xanthe,” my imaginary audience asks for the sake of a joke, “why do so many of your bartenders know your traumatic backstory?”

WELL, THIS IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU ADMINISTER FERMENTED GRAPES AND ETHANOL TO ME. You’re my unofficial therapist, well done.

Here, we’re referencing a status I had wherein I’m like, ‘Stop trying to get me to switch to weed, let people enjoy their poison’ and Ash comments a Mayo Clinic article about how it wasn’t good for the body. Which, like. Duh.

It wasn’t long before Asra arrived to retrieve me. I felt that I were almost sneaking out of the house to go and meet them. And we did, in fact, have a good time. I was writing and they were playing video games and I found myself venting about the Zara situation.

And gods, it felt good to talk to someone who knew the household but was outside of it. There was something about that house that seemed to swirl back on itself like a warping miasma and Asra, at that time, seemed apart from it. And Asra would actually listen and say, ‘That’s fucked up, dude. That shouldn’t be happening.’ And I would answer back with an emphatic ‘THANK you.’

And I soaked up every dark joke they had. I remember when their longtime partner, Tony, was trying to go in for a hug and Asra was either trying to do something else or not feeling it. It was a casual moment between the two, with Tony laughing, and saying, “I just want to give you my love!” And Asra jokingly saying, “No, I don’t want your love!” Then Asra turned to me and smirked. “Sound familiar?”

I remember doubling over in the kitchen and just cackling. Yes, please, turn my pain into a comedy! Please set the precedent for these blogs months into the future!

I think they returned me that same night, just a bit better in morale. But I do remember, specifically, as they drove me home. “Honestly, I always have to clean up [Arkady]’s shit,” Asra griped. “I remember a time, not long after y’all started talking, that I had to literally go over to the Birch Crescent apartment and have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with him.”

I frowned. “Really?” I somewhat remembered a conversation I’d had with Ash. It was the night wherein Arkady accidentally (and quite drunkenly) told me he was in love with me for the first time. April 27th-28th, 2018.

“Confessed” refers to the fact that Arkady drunkenly confessed that he was in love with me.
I’ve heard since that Arkady and/or someone through Arkady’s body was actually honest for once and called them out for being jealous of his relationship with me. Which uh. Explains a lot.
CONSTANTLY.

“Yeah, it’s like I always got to save one relationship or another. I remember, especially in the beginning, when your and [Arkady]’s relationship was going great, his and [Ash]’s would go downhill real quick.” They paused as they turned the wheel to their ‘whip.’ I hadn’t even learned that term before moving to Rochester and I was still mildly fascinated with it. “Sometimes I wonder if he’s even polyamorous, to be honest.”

Please let him be polyamorous. I wasn’t an idiot– I was the newer one, I was the one with less of a financial support, I was the one without parents willing to pay for a wedding, one without even connections to this city. If he had to cut off one, it made sense that it’d be me. And if Gaslamp got its way–…

Gods, I didn’t even want to think about it.

Well, I kept trying to pitch my case to Arkady.

He clearly wasn’t having it, but I’d already seen enough of this from my inworld. Yes, he would be cruel at first. He might even shout at me, insult me, etc. But once he saw, he would be safe. And that’s what kept me going.

I’ve uh. Worked on how much of a dick I am in an argument.

I have to say, looking back on these screenshots, it was very clear that we were both deteriorating and occasionally colliding in our downward spiral. Especially in that last one. It doesn’t seem like anger from him, it seems like panic. The amount of visceral avoidance he responded with– in hindsight, it looked like Arkady at least subconsciously knew what would happen if I pointed my finger at Ash’s new favourite person. He didn’t know he knew it, he didn’t want to know it. But I think he knew what would happen if I continued to speak and he was desperately warning me away from the kind of backlash he’d suffered through for six years– via Ash’s old friend circle, via their family.

I didn’t see it. In my eyes, he was refusing to communicate and being a dick just because I hadn’t found the right argument yet.

“[Arkady], you know something is going on! And it’s not an insult to Zara that it’s around her, it–”

“It’s not around her!” Arkady argued. We were standing on the stairs. Well, he was. I was five steps above him, on the second-floor hallway. I had been physically following him to present my theory and this is when he whirled on me. “There is nothing going on and you need to fucking speak to your therapist. I cannot handle this. Especially because whenever I talk to you about this, you always have to pop off one smartass comment when I’m done talking and it’s infuriating.” He sighed. He wasn’t the first one to tell me I had that habit, but there were more pressing matters afoot, damn it! “I need you to leave me the fuck alone.”

I was actually prepared for this. Braced for whatever coldness I might encounter. It was somewhat of an exorcism, for me, with the face of my loved one saying what it could to dissuade me. Some part of me, however, was stung and scared. “Wait. Forever?”

I winced. That’s not the response I had prepared and I had no idea why that just came out of my mouth. It sounded so scared and meek. I looked at Arkady, hoping whatever vulnerable side of me that was apparently out of my control could inspire some sympathy in him.

It didn’t.

“Are you serious right now? No, I don’t mean forever! ‘Forever?’” He repeated my wavering tone mockingly. “You sound like a kicked puppy!” The disgust in his voice made me feel as though I had, in fact, been kicked.

He went downstairs and I was left wiping away tears that didn’t seem like my own. What the fuck was happening? “When I end up being proven right about this, you owe me three crates of champagne!” I called down the stairs. I felt comforted by that. Finally, something coming out of my mouth that was more believably me.

Arkady was not amused. “That’s what I’m fucking talking about!” I heard him snap back from the kitchen.

I think it was the same day wherein I, once again, accosted him in a hallway. “You realise that Vex has felt this too, right? It’s not just me. Aberle thinks so too! You’re the only one who doesn’t!”

Arkady rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t make sense,” he insisted. “It doesn’t track.”

“Yes, it does!” I persisted. “Think about it. Would you really have ever forgotten to get me anything for my birthday if something weren’t wrong? Do you really think that’s you? And remember the moment that Ash had in the cemetery? It centered on the Vex and Thysia legend. Zara is a Fire Sign, like Vex! She relates to Hellhounds, like what Vex is! It has to be related! You can ask Vex, she even agrees!”

This actually made him pause. I remember that we were in his bedroom when he finally thought about this. I could feel connections being made in his head and I almost leapt for joy. “Zara… has… an entity that has followed her, and it kind of fits what’s been–…” he trailed off. He sat on the bed and looked me straight in the eyes for the first time in days. He bit his lip. “I… I don’t think–… Okay, now that I think about it…”

Fireworks. A champagne toast. A thousand people throwing their hats up in the air. That’s what happened in my heart.

I forget who initiated the hug. It was, in all probability, both of us, just relieved to be done with the argument. “I don’t think I need to ask Vex,” he hoarsely whispered. Then he chuckled softly. “I don’t actually owe you three crates of champagne, do I?”

I smiled and pulled away. “No, darling,” I assured him. “I’d settle for three bottles.”

I really, really am.

He laughed and the sound was music to my ears. We hugged a while more. I apologised to him later in that evening. “I, uh… can be a dick when I argue. It’s a useful trait, sometimes, but not something I like about myself… It’s for a good cause, I swear, but I’m sorry about that.”

He brightened visibly at that. It was like I’d said something to the equivalent of, ‘Huh, I think I may actually start cutting back on drinking.’ It was apparently a sort of self-awareness he’d been waiting on.

“I’m… so proud of you for saying that,” he was gushing, practically hopping on the kitchen counter he was perched on. “Be sure to tell [Ash] about that!”

He was proud of me! I started to smile but then it faded as soon as it began. What the fuck had Ash been saying?

February 11th:

Ash texted the group chat that they were calling a family meeting. I, for one egotistical moment, thought it might’ve been about me. Which was funny. I mean, March had just lost his job and we weren’t doing great financially anyway.

Granted, the fact that I’d had a suicide attempt and argued with Arkady a lot during the past month didn’t exactly bode well, but we’d been doing well over the past couple of weeks. The effects of ‘Gaslamp’, entity or otherwise, always just needed communication to cease. And it turns out, communication is good for relationships, too!

Who would’ve fucking thought?

And hell, if March could have an average of one breakdown a month the year prior and still have from at least spring to October to redeem himself before the breaking point, and by my calculation, I still had plenty of leeway I had no intent of cashing.

Assuming any of this was fair.

Arkady and I did, to be fair, have a couple of small, stupid bickers. It was the type where neither of us were actually right and it made no sense to get mad at each other over whether a chair would scratch a floor, or how much room we gave each other in the kitchen.

Arkady had expressed feeling anxious more than usual and was contemplating upping his anxiety meds, which would probably help. Now that I was done being an ass as brainwash-repellent, I asked him all of the typical partner things. Is he okay? Can I do anything to help?

No, just one of those random things, he assured me. February tended to do that to Rochesterians anyway.

As we all gathered within the living room. I was picking at my nails, ready for the conversation to start. I started projecting how we would divvy up rent through three incomes. Ash said, “Who wants to start?”

There was a long pause.

Then Arkady turned to me and said, “I’m tired of fighting with you.”

Well, my NPD must be shitting itself. It actually was all about me. My heart sank. March and Ash were looking at me expectantly. God damn it, this wasn’t a family meeting, this was a fucking intervention. “I’m… sorry about the bickering, I’ve been stressed lately. And I’m the only autistic person in the house, so I’ve been trying to work on miscommunication…” I hadn’t even been really invested in the argument with the chair. It was like that weird, vulnerable part of me just wanted to understand why certain chairs scratched the floor and others didn’t. It reminded me of the body’s autistic childhood of constantly splitting hairs to figure out the rules.

March was only too happy to see someone else in the hot seat. “I just personally watched you try to argue with [Arkady] about whether the chair scratched the wood floor, Xanthe.” The tone he said it in. Christ. It was like he was grimly telling me that he found my hand stuck in the money drawer at work. “You even said that I ‘boxed you in’ the kitchen a couple of weeks ago.”

I’d like to think that most people would understand the difference between being boxed in and being cornered. Arguing the semantics of that, however, was not the wisest move.

I was talking. Oh, believe me, I was talking. And willing myself to shut the fuck up. I wanted my NPD to kick in, to sit back and wait until I found the motive for this ambush and strike with more precision. But whatever part of me that I couldn’t control just kept rambling on about being sorry that we had autism.

This was getting bizarre.

“You’ve been the reason [Arkady] has been so stressed and anxious lately,” Ash said. They looked at Arkady expectantly, who nodded.

I was now tearing at my nailbeds and dead skin on my fingers. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Guilt was swallowing me up from the inside-out.

“Yeah, I even told you that I was anxious and you didn’t even ask why or if I was okay,” Arkady said.

I stared at him. Yes, I did. I know I did. Let me get out my phone and I’ll show you. You thought it was just random anxiety, you were going to ask your doctor about it. Remember? I can show you right now. “I’m sorry. I didn’t… mean to.” WHAT? I felt locked in my body. Everything I was actually saying never actually made it to the mouth. The entire thing felt like sleep paralysis. Except instead of remaining motionless, I had to watch myself fucking fawning.

“And the Gaslamp thing,” Ash began. “You thought it was the reason that whole crisis happened in the attic? But you were drunk, Xanthe. Gaslamp isn’t even real and I feel like you really need to talk about this problem you have with Zara. She’s been nothing but nice to you and you’ve been villainizing her.”

What the fuck do you mean, Gaslamp isn’t real? You had an entire possession episode about it over in Mt. Hope cemetery. You blamed it on the fact that you were shitty to me last year. “Oh. I… I mean, you have been spending a lot of time with her lately. Maybe I was jealous.” I was about ready to strangle whoever the fuck was in control of my mouth.

There was a sharp pain in my hands and that helped to ground me. I inhaled. “No, it was because when you were in the attic, you left [Arkady] and I alone together and said, ‘All I know is that our friend no longer feels welcome here.’ And there’s no way you could’ve known that. I’ve had suspicions about Zara being a wielder because of all the shit that keeps happening when she’s over, but I’ve kept that to myself before the attic incident. So, how could Zara possibly know that I was paranoid over her presence and feel unwelcome over something I didn’t even express to anyone? That was Gaslamp shit. It used to happen all the time with [April.]”

Ash sighed. Literally fucking sighed like I was like I was prattling on about the marching of the pink elephants. They were getting out their laptop. “I asked Zara if she would be okay if she weighed in on this so that we could clear this up.”

Arkady blinked. “Xanthe, you’re bleeding.”

I looked down. My hands were covered in blood and I hadn’t even noticed. Oh. I’d literally clawed the hell out of my hands to ground myself. That doesn’t exactly add to the feeling of my rational point of view, does it? One of the three of them fetched me a paper towel and I wrapped it around the offending fingers, and started tearing at that instead. I could feel myself shaking. The paper towel turned red more quickly than I would have preferred it to.

Ash was already calling Zara. I didn’t remember having said yes to this. I don’t think I had.

Zara’s face popped up before me every bit as unbidden as usual. There was a moment of greetings before she went into the heart of the issue. “What’s this… Gaslamp thing you think I’m possessed by?”

Oh, yep, the result of the game I hate most: Polycule Telephone. “No, it’s…” Literally something people never should have told you. If I tell someone I trust about my complex paranoia about you, even if it’s correct or not, it should never have gotten back to you. It’s common sense. If someone confides in someone about feeling unsafe around someone else, you don’t fucking tattle to the person they’re afraid of being around. I re-explained the situation with the attic, how I was viscerally uncomfortable by Ash seeming to know everyone’s emotions and motives before it was possible.

I could feel myself start to panic. Four people– four people gathered around just to call me a delusional, manipulative piece of shit in more flowery terms. People who assumed the intention of my mental state, when I was really only trying to protect us all.

“I did stay at my sister’s that weekend,” Zara affirmed. “I could tell there was some tension in the household and didn’t really want to add to it. And it’d been a while since I’d stayed over at my sister’s, so I kind of wanted to give you guys a break.”

Oh. That was nice of her. Arkady nodded. “Well, [Ash], in that case, I think you owe Xanthe an apology.”

Oh, thank gods.

Ash did not agree. “What do you mean?” The tone was accusatory and their scowl was pronounced.

Arkady gave the briefest pause before frowning. “Zara just said that you were wrong about her not feeling welcome.”

“No, she didn’t,” Ash firmly said. “She just said that she didn’t feel welcome because of the tension.”

“Yeah!” Zara chimed in. “No, I didn’t feel welcome at all, [Ash] was right.”

I felt like I was losing my mind. This wasn’t making sense. None of this was making fucking sense. I was frozen again, locked up inside. Whatever kept speaking for me was about to start apologising again, I knew it.

I looked to Arkady, relying on only my eyes to say, ‘Please, please, please tell me you fucking saw that too.’

Arkady paused, furrowing his brow, looking back and forth between Zara, to me, then finally, to Ash. “Oh.” It was such a hollow tone. Already doubting the reality he witnessed, resigned to the fact that he was clearly wrong.

Something inside me cracked. Some structure of sanity fractured, the instability spreading like ripples throughout my psyche. I was watching Arkady, waiting for him, at any moment, to say, ‘This isn’t right, actually. Wait, this isn’t making sense. What Xanthe was saying two weeks ago made sense to me for a reason, and y’all have contradicted yourselves twice.’

But nothing. He was staring straight ahead, lost in what looked like a mild state of catatonia.

That was the point where I, too, gave up. I was frozen as I watched this other entity, Story, apologise all over herself and promise to do better. I watch them all get their pound of flesh, saying that autism was no excuse, that I had been possessive over Ash having new friends, et cetera. It went on for an agonising twenty minutes more. I’m not sure if Arkady actually spoke again besides the occasional echoing or agreement.

Unmercifully, I didn’t manage to retreat into my inworld until everyone had already gotten their pound of flesh.