(TW: suicide, existential terror, transphobia, repeated discussion of splitting, alcoholism, pain pills, surgery discussion, grooming, CSA, parental abuse, self-harm, and neglect. This is another dark one, full of flashbacks. Brace yourself, but this is important.)
Nebula’s life but Sparrow’s POV, narrated by Sparrow:
Have you ever died?
I’m not talking like, for a few seconds on the operating table. Or maybe they had to zap you back to life. I mean, you lose consciousness and years just keep going on without you.
And then you wake up.
If you’re part of a system and also deeply unfortunate, you may know how it feels.
My last day alive was December 17th, 2012. I wasn’t really me. I was one of the three(?) parts of Nebula.
I barely remember Savannah. I remember driving there. I remember I was inexperienced and terrified. I remember sleeping in the back of the car when we arrived, resenting the balmy nights, the unrelenting sun that didn’t have the sense to go away in the autumn. I remember the homeless people, sleeping under the bridge with them when my mind got too messy to be alone. I remember that we had no connections other than our abuser, floating through the cracks of society with the comforting rhythm. Find food, apply for jobs, find air conditioning, ask tourists for leftovers, go back to the car.
I never did remember our time with April. I remember bitching about her, I remember that she was the center of this plot, I remember knowing that everything we were going through was because of her. Her presence in my consciousness was an ominous, over-hanging bundle of consequences.
I hated her. Still do.
Why wouldn’t I? She killed me.
By the time we found the apartment, life was a blur.
I honestly preferred being homeless rather than paying to be around two of Craigslist’s finest rejects but there we were.
We’d known for a couple of months that something wasn’t right. We’d stopped dreaming entirely. The days were getting blurrier. There was something unnamed, vying for the front. And you know, they seemed more keen on living than us, and… well. We felt like we were already dead.
That we had already disappeared into some strange, southern town, that everyone we knew was better off without us.
Our choice to die wasn’t really much of a suicide. It was, technically, yeah. But we were really just pulling the plug when we were already on life support.
Story’s POV, narrated by Sparrow:
Six years later
I woke up.
Well, Story woke up. I wasn’t yet quite me. I was the weird amalgamation between myself and the alter that would later become Aelaris. Something new, something just realizing it can breathe and experience the world. But I do remember being scared. Horrified, really.
I looked down at my hands, watching them flex, making sure it was really me moving. Like figuring out which character you can move after you’ve forgotten who you picked for Super Smash Bros.
One thing my brain was focused on was a freckle that used to be in the very middle segment of my right pinky finger. Weird detail, I know, but it was a dark freckle in the middle of the underside of my little finger. I’d never seen it on anyone else.
That freckle was gone, faded away by time. As if it’d never been there.
In fact, everything around me was like I had never been there. Every detail about Nebula was posthumously erased. Gone were the Green Day posters, the space-themed décor, the striped sleeves, the checkered ties.
In the wardrobe were satins and brocades and…okay, the blue was comforting. I remembered the blue. But where were the silvers? All replaced with gold, as if the sun had completely overtaken our moon.
And it basically did, didn’t it?
I had a drink in my hand. It must’ve been alcohol. It was in a wine glass, and I took a long gulp of it. I hadn’t had much in my life other than wine coolers. Smirnoff and Captain Morgan’s. Mom once filled Sprite bottles full of contraband wine coolers to take to concerts and I would find them all over her house in the country when I was thirteen. I remember sneaking into the garage and chugging them whenever my anxiety got too bad. Whenever we were forced to save an imaginary friend of April’s and were sleepless from a 32-hour plus suicide watch.
I looked at the phone. Not my phone. My phone was years dead. It was a phone, some long thing with the biggest screen I’ve ever seen.
I read the time.
December 10th, 2018.
Six years. It’d been six years. I didn’t recognize where I was, who I was. I went outside, looking around. It looked like I was still in Savannah, in some ultra-polished, sterile, already decorated apartment.
It was an inn.
That fact introduced itself to me, as well as the fact that I had a key to the inn. I used it. Almost like there were little information bubbles that I was processing but deaf and blind to.
It was weird. It was like living in a dream instead of actually being in this body. It was some amnesiac horror game I was living through, some complete and total erasure of myself, and I was piloting someone else.
I tried a door and entered a house, just off of the inn’s garden. Some random factoid in my head told me that it was a house that had easy access to the roof.
I remember how the plush, antique carpets felt underneath my feet. It reminded me of Aunt Carolyn’s house, more antique museum than home. I climbed a narrow staircase to the roof.
I’ve always liked high places. Dad yelled at me when I tried to get up on our roof as a kid because Mill Valley neighbors are fucking snitches and actually called him about it. When I reached that roof, I could see it. Talmadge Bridge, that I had crossed, white-knuckled, in a Mitsubishi six years ago.
This was a nightmare. Some uncanny valley fucking nightmare.
Whenever I had a nightmare that was too bad, I found the highest place I could and jumped off. And this was a high place. Four stories up.
I walked to the edge. Something clawed itself over me and my awareness was gone yet again.
Xanthe, December 10th, 2018:
I wondered if jumping from the roof would disqualify me from my upcoming top surgery.
That’s it; that’s the first thought I had. Not if I were going to die, not being startled that I was on the roof, just a wheedling thought that if I were to jump, it might fuck up my scheduled bi-lateral mastectomy.
The realisation slowly occurred to me that I was on a roof. I didn’t remember getting up there. I mean, yeah, I’d… technically been drinking. When I say technically, I mean I was halfway through my first goddamned cocktail. Not even enough for my ears to start turning red. I’d been on a video chat with Arkady and Ash when Ash had suddenly ‘fainted’ and Arkady had to leave abruptly.
I was startled and felt somewhat robbed– these video calls were as precious as air and as common as a paycheque. “You’ll call back, won’t you?”
“Yeah, of course I will!” Arkady said, ushering Ash back to the bedroom. “I promise.”
I’d given it about an hour. Finally, I called him. I think it went to voicemail and when I tried again, he did pick up. “Do me a favour, and call me back.”
“Please.” I hung up, taking another sip.
He called back immediately. “Hey, what’s up?”
“I didn’t want you to break a promise to me. And you didn’t.” Because he’d called back. His record was zero broken promises thus far and I intended to keep it that way. Even through my ridiculous little loopholes.
I remember that he explained that Ash wasn’t feeling well and that he was feeling tired from tending to them. He spoke to me sweetly, reassuringly. I can’t remember what the fuck he said. My brain was full of fog, my senses floating in a disjointed jumble outside of me. But I could still hold on– his voice always kept me from floating away.
We hung up, and I took one selfie apparently mid-switch. Then I was no longer there. Like a switch had gone off in my brain.
And there I was, up on a roof, with no recollection of what I was doing there.
Panicked, I crouched, thinking that me even standing would tempt whatever was possessing me to throw me off that roof and completely ruin the vacation of whatever tourist that was parked below me. I took a few minutes to see a possible way down, but I couldn’t tell which roof entrance I had come out of. If I were to try a random one, I could end up in my boss’ house, having to explain an impromptu breaking-and-entering in my pyjamas. Or I could end up in an occupied guest house, fleeing the night like a dandified raccoon.
There was a fire escape, about eight feet below, on the opposite side. But how could I trust myself to stay grounded?
But fuck, his phone was notoriously unreliable. A ‘drug-dealer’ phone, he called it. It was known for dropping calls and even turning off randomly. It was a familiar work-around to call Ash’s phone instead. I was hoping to hear Arkady’s voice, but Ash was a dear friend that was fast growing close to me. When they answered instead, it wasn’t a loss.
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
“Hi, um. I… blacked out, and now I’m on the roof. And I don’t remember getting up here, which isn’t ideal. Any chance you could stay on the phone with me until I’m back on the ground?”
It wasn’t my first time blacking out. I used to do it all the time a few years ago– why were these little episodes starting up again?
And they did. Arkady woke up briefly for Ash coaching me down– I don’t think he understood the situation in his half-awake state or Ash simply neglected to tell him. I remember Ash offering to look on Google Maps to find easier ways down. But no, all of these rooftops looked the same. I knew which way I had to take down; it was just going to hurt.
“Okay, so, I’m going to jump. It should only be about eight feet, but it’s onto a metal platform. I’m aiming to land on my feet, and I’ll have the phone on me. If the phone goes off, or if you hear me crying out for help, just say ‘fuck it’ and call 911. There’s not a big chance of me missing, but…” Better that than me on a rooftop twenty feet below, with a broken leg, and a guest wondering who the fuck they were going to call about the spare towel.
With that plan in mind, I took a deep breath, and jumped.
I’d tried landing on my feet, but I had stumbled forward and landed face-down for the latter half. Not as bad as it could’ve been. My entire skeleton felt jarred, almost like it was rattling within its meat. The wind had gotten knocked from me, but after a moment, I felt in my robe and pulled out my phone. “Yeah, I’m okay!” I gasped.
I stayed on the phone with Ash until I reached my bedroom. I’d come to the conclusion that it was all some sort of… subconscious suicide attempt.
After all, Avery’s visit had been recently and that, uh…
I mean, I was happy to see them. I was! But the way Avery kept talking, the more it seemed like like the visit would be a last hurrah. Obviously, the last four years of constant threats of suicide, then them choosing to lose their job rather than simply request time off in advance and ending up fired, then gifting me a huge supply of their testosterone, well–
One tends to forego the optimism when it comes to Avery.
I’d told that to Arkady in the same night, when we were still on the video call. He spoke on his bafflement halfway through before the dark motive occurred to him.“They gave you a ton of their testosterone vials? Why would they do thaaaaAAAT’S so generous of them!” It made me cackle at the time, but the thought was haunting me.
“It could be the fact that I’m wondering at which point I’ll hear a terrible announcement regarding [Avery] via FB,” I told Ash over the phone. “Or it could be that gin does something odd to me. I usually drink wine.” The gin had been a gift from Avery. The bottle had been blue, so why not?
Honestly, I hated myself for pulling something like this. I was in a beautiful new relationship, my top surgery was only a month away, and here I was, pulling my 2015 bullshit.
Our company holiday party was the next day. As I sat in the inn’s premier vacation house, I could see flashes of the staircase from the night before.
Fuck. This was the house from where I almost made my great plunge. That surely would have put a damper on the party.
My life was good. Why the fuck was I choosing now of all times to go off the deep end?
Xanthe: January, 2019.
Transcript from a Facebook update, January 13th, 2019:
“I don’t have a big support system down here. In fact, I am down to a total of 1 consistent friend locally. So, when Mum, who’s in denial about my identity but also has mild nursing experience, suggested she come down and help me recover from top surgery (which is Tuesday), I was a bit hard-pressed to say no. (Some surgeons refuse to even do it if you don’t have someone set to stay with you the first 48 hours.)
I mean, she could never get my name or pronouns right and has said some DENSE fucking things about trans people, but she’s responsible, punctual, and cares about my Physical well-being.
I figured it’d be a symbiotic sort of thing. She gets a free vacation somewhere warm(er) with conditions, I get help and rides.
But g o d s.
First [she] was bitching about my pets, saying how she wanted me to get rid of my pet rats and how she’d rather I keep my birds in their cage all day so they didn’t get feathers in my hallway. Then it was this entire diatribe about how I shouldn’t cringe at my deadname or pronouns because ‘It’s not like I named you anything silly’ and that it’s ‘selfish’ of me to hate it.
When I pointed out that misgendering me in public was liable to get me to be the victim of a hate crime, she told me that it’d probably be my top hat and ruffles that’d do it. (Because we read a lot about flashy Victorians getting lynched in the streets, right?)
I told her not to do it in front of coworkers or guests, at least. She shouted at me that it was because she knew ‘the truth about me’, that I was ‘born a girl’ and that I ‘am a girl.’ And that doctors only tell me differently because they want money out of it. (Including the volunteer clinic I get my HRT script from. You know, the free one that doesn’t take insurance? Yeah, that one. They do it for money, apparently.)
She thinks this was a choice to need surgery, to need HRT, to need my name changed, and she basically just sums it up to ‘me Deciding to be difficult.’
She got here Friday night and my surgery is on Tuesday. Why is she here so early? Woman was even early to her own birthday, she was literally born the day of her own babyshower, that’s just how. she. is.
She’s not even treating it like a vacation. She refuses to do any of the free stuff I procured for her and seems to outright be offended by the prospect of my friend that’s close to her age taking her out of my studio for a few hours. She says she’s perfectly content to just hang around, smoke, and play her phone game.
And yeah, it’s hard to tell her to fuck off. She’s taken off of work, spent her own money on cleaning supplies, cleaned my apartment since I’ve worked too much lately to not be overwhelmed by it. When my drains are out, sure, but until then?
I can’t drink before surgery/during healing. I should avoid lavender and chamomile before surgery. I’m having stress migraines constantly and I Hate, Hate, Hate that this is just another hellish trial of The Bullshit I have to put up with to even feel comfortable.
I don’t know really what I’m looking for. Sympathy makes me feel horrendously. Just roast my mum’s logic, I guess. Have patience with me– I might be snappy. I’m going to get absolutely t r a s h e d when I can. Just.
Bloody fucking hell.”
Story’s POV, narrated by Sparrow:
Mom was over. Mom! Oh shit, Mom! Hi! Jesus, finally someone I fucking recognize.
My relationship with Mom hadn’t been always ideal. On one hand, despite her objectively making a lot less money than Dad, her kitchen was always full of snacks and lunch meat. Dad, on the other hand, had a Master’s degree, made 250+ grand a year, and the cupboards were bare. Because he was never home, following his favorite child on his baseball tour, and because I was a stray cat he only circumstantially remembered to toss a bag of McDonald’s at.
Guess which parent had primary custody?
Not that Mom was perfect. Far from it.
When she found out that we were dating a girl, she told us we never should’ve mentioned it in front of Grandma due to her ‘health.’ She wouldn’t have reacted as badly if I had been with a boy, instead. When I told her, “Well, guess what? That’s discrimination, bitch!’
Mom pulled over and made me walk the rest of the way to Dad’s, which was approximately 30+ minutes in -10 degree weather. When I told her I was bi, she told me, ‘It makes it sound like you’d sleep with anything, even a lightpole!’
And why was Mom here? Why was Mom 800 miles away from central Ohio?
Because we were getting top surgery.
I wasn’t fronting exactly, but I was paying attention. By this time, I knew kind of who Xanthe was. Xanthe was like if Jack Sparrow had been forced into prep school and had quite a few life-changing, homo-erotic experiences, and gotten into wine instead of rum. They spoke with a British accent, which seemed basically out of nowhere, considering we were definitely from Ohio. But there were a few improvements I was able to notice outside of my private existential crisis. For example, part of their hair was dyed blue, that was cool. And okay, they definitely had the gothic vampire look down. And they were sans April.
You crazy bastard, you escaped her. How the fuck did you do it?
I even checked their social media to be sure. Yep, no sign of April’s name anywhere. Not many other names I recognized, either. Which wasn’t surprising. My friends tended to have a shelf life of only two fucking years anyway.
I watched as Xanthe was forced to fake an American accent, interacting with Mom like she were Their mother I felt oddly possessive over this incredibly flawed woman.
She was there to care for us when we got top surgery.
Damn. Being cared for?
Dad once let us pass out on the bathroom floor before finally admitting that we were sick after five long days. We were told by the doctor told we had the stomach flu, strep throat, and the flu all at once, and if Dad had waited any longer to bring us into the ER, we’d had died. Seriously, we couldn’t keep down enough nutrients to fight off the other two things. Dad at least had the decency to look vaguely flummoxed at the news.
I’d get to just lay around, be brought food, and rest? Damn, that sounded nice.
Okay, I could stick around for this. I always did want at least a reduction so the fact that we were getting top surgery is something I was stoked for. Did that make me male? An FtM or whatever? Was I actually just a butch lesbian and hated my chest? What flavor of queer was I even?
Well. Whatever kind of queer I was, Mother Dearest wasn’t on board.
“I will not be corrected by my child!” Her words were dripping with resentment, even disgust. “I know the truth about you!I was there when you were born! I had a little girl!”
Xanthe had the resolve not to flinch. We probably would’ve.
I watched as this visit deteriorated. At one point, Mom threatened to go home. Xanthe, still faking at sounding like the child of two Ohioans, said, “You can’t just go. You agreed to be my caretaker, you can’t just leave me.”
You can’t just leave me.
That sentence echoed so profoundly that it seemed to vibrate my very bones.
That was abandonment. If someone threatens to leave Xanthe, Xanthe apparently regards them as having already left. Wow, I know where that survival skill was in response to! A+ for character development! Mom hadn’t officially given up her post, despite her threat, but Xanthe had a friend. A friend that was offering to fly down from New York and take up that post.
That friend was Ash.
Without too much ceremony, Xanthe kicked Mom out. Xanthe was anxious. Distraught, really. They had someone to call. They called Arkady, Ash’s partner, and Xanthe’s as well. I can’t really remember the words, but I knew Arkady had a calming effect on Xanthe.
“You just lost the best friend you’ll ever have!” Mom spat, later on, when she forced herself back into the apartment just to yell at us some more.
I blacked out again. I didn’t want to see this. Another familiar face, falling by the wayside. I was sick enough of it already, goddamnit.
Xanthe: Transcript from Facebook, January 15th, 2019:
“Okay, here’s the full extent of what happened. (LONG, TW for transphobia, gaslighting, blackmail, emotional abuse)
I had a hell of a time with insurance this morning. Bastards literally called THE DAY BEFORE surgery and said their approval letter didn’t necessarily mean approval and that it was back to ‘pending.’ Seriously. That is some transphobic bullshit if I’ve ever seen some. (And I have.) Well, after some desperate pulling of the strings as well as a panic attack I can’t believe didn’t kill me, I decided that I now had trust issues with insurance and said, ‘Fuck it.’ And went with my surgeon’s offer to get the cosmetic price two days later. (Surgery is now on Thursday and about $400 more but FUCK IT.)
I got home and I was still distressed, even though everything was handled. But I dressed myself and resolved to spend my first day off with Mum and just hang out downtown. My good friend, Marcia, knew I was stressed and dropped off a care package. Mum was playing a ‘Songpop’ phone game and had both earbuds in. I told Mum I’d be right back, went out to the car, chatted with Marcia. Then my boss texts me and asks about the schedule, because obviously my time off would have to change. I walk back into the room, I shout to Mum (who apparently didn’t hear me either time because, song-pop) that my manager needed to talk to me.
I walk back in after about fifteen minutes and she was packing. She explained that she was leaving, that she hated to be ‘lectured’ and talked down to about pronouns, how I wouldn’t ‘consider her feelings’ about what I was doing, how she wasn’t having fun, how I had ‘ignored her’ and ‘left to run off with friends.’ She later revealed, while simmering down, that she felt she had been ‘misled’ and that she ‘wasn’t aware [I] was transitioning to a man.’ I explained that, no, I’m still non-binary-presenting, just leaning more towards ‘he’ than ‘she.’ She said that since that wasn’t how it was in our first conversation about it, (Like three years ago), that I was ‘lying.’ But she was calming down. Especially after I explained that I didn’t mean to rush off and that I did try to tell her I’d be right back, but from this morning, I was a bit inconsiderate and scattered.
I thought I’d take her to lunch/dinner. On the way there, I had told her that I’m sorry she’s not having fun, but I had gone out of my way to get her free museum passes, had given her coupon books to eat out, that I hoped she would treat it like a vacation with conditions. She told me, “I don’t WANT to have fun. I don’t WANT to have a vacation. Not when you’re having THAT TYPE of procedure.” And then revealed to me that, in the office earlier, while getting my surgery sorted, that she had asked for a kleenex because she was CRYING about the prospect of my top surgery. I’m dead serious. That this entire thing about her helping me was that she was just making herself a martyr because she ‘needed to’ being that she was the parent.
Well, some of you may remember how [Asher] blackmailed me for my first HRT appointment. I figured that, you know, you threaten to leave once, you’re going to do it again.
[Ash], this fucking GEM OF A PERSON, this absolute saviour dear friend/family of mine, told me that they could be on a plane the next day.
I gave Mum an ultimatum, as we finished lunch. I said, ‘If you want to stay, you need to agree to stay no matter what disagreements we have. You don’t seem to be agreeing with this, I don’t think either of us can handle the situation as it is. I have a friend– [Ash]– who just finished their own procedure, exactly the same as my own, and has medical experience who is offering to take your place.’
[Mum] agrees that she’ll stay, but says, ‘I’m the best one to do it. Where’s he from, New York? No, that’s not the best caretaker for you. I am because I’M THE MOTHER. THAT’S my qualification. Not him.’
… ‘It’s they, actually. Not sure where you got he.’
Luckily the tab is paid because she gets up and storms off and is like ‘You have RUINED this. You just HAD to ATTACK ME about someone I don’t EVEN KNOW. Just so you know, after this, we ARE DONE. I was ready to stay, but you HAD to ruin this, I am LEAVING.’ I agree that it’s for the best. She continues, ‘I hope you realise that you are losing the best friend that you will ever HAVE! I would have SUPPORTED YOU. I would’ve DIED FOR YOU. I don’t think you’re even mentally fit to make the decision for surgery!” And then, alarmingly, says, “You had better warn [REDACTED] that I need to talk to her. If you won’t tell her, I’ll bang on her door until she answers.” For those who don’t know, [REDACTED] is my BOSS, NEIGHBOUR, and LANDLORD.
I didn’t know what the fuck she would do. Yell about me to [REDACTED]? Try to get me fired??? Like???
She packs up, shaky and wiping away tears, and leaves. I help her load her car. I call [Arkady] because, you know, he’s my boyfriend and he can calm me down. (Also the only partner not working.) I have him on messenger call and I hear a knock on the door. I figure she might’ve left her wallet or keys or something. I open the door and ask her if she left anything; I tell [Arkady] to hold on but I don’t hang up.
She tells me to hang up the phone and PICKS IT UP and jabs at the centre. I figure it’s hung up. It’s Not, still on speakerphone, in my pocket.
She walks right by me into MY HOUSE, sits in my chair, and keeps saying that we need to discuss this. She gaslights the fuck out of me, saying that I ‘flipped out’ because she got my friend’s pronouns wrong. I explained that she was acting abhorrently, that she even threatened to yell about me to [REDACTED].
She explained, calmly, condescendingly, that she only meant to thank [REDACTED] for hospitality. How I twisted her words, how I was ‘acting bizarrely.’ I kept repeating that I had a friend coming and she needed to leave. She gave me this quizzical look and said, ‘You realise you’ve said this four times, right?’
[Arkady], from my pocket: “YOU KNOW THAT BUT YOU DON’T KNOW THEIR NAME AND PRONOUNS???”
I tried to turn the volume down and ended up turning it UP because my life is just like that. He said something else (I can’t actually remember.) But it kind of drove Mum off. (Thanks, dear!)
[Avery] and [Arkady] ALSO texted Mum and just tore into her. Officially, to my dad, I didn’t know about that and took no pleasure in that. But honestly…
I wish this had gone better. I knew she wasn’t 100% on board, but I NEVER expected her to just sulk in plain sight, determined not to have fun, and berate me for even cringing at my pronouns. I’m still stressed, but I feel lighter. I couldn’t let that be the environment I healed in. I couldn’t have the chest reveal I’ve fought so long for only for Mum to act like I’ve broken her heart.
Thank you to everyone who offered to help– we may still need it, as [Ash] isn’t back at full strength yet after their own surgery, and rides may help. A couple of you reached out to me, even ones who don’t know me well, so thank you SO much.
Also, thank you to those who offered to adopt me.
[Ash] arrives tomorrow afternoon and I’m so relieved. The sheer amount of stress has been unreal and I’m looking forward to a week of relaxing and hanging out with a good friend.”
Story’s POV, narrated by Sparrow:
I woke up two days after the top surgery.
There were tubes coming out of me. Plastic tubes embedded in my skin. I felt like a science experiment. Maybe I was. I had been prescribed pain meds. Something you needed a prescription to get.
Xanthe had meant to take one.
I took five.
The fact of pills always did weird things to Story. They scared us, the youngest of us in particular, linked to some deep buried memory. I showed them I wasn’t afraid by overindulging, exploiting the rift in the contrast.
Ash was around, though. They wanted to chat about… well… our shared dark history. They knew vaguely about what happened to us, in the way that Xanthe did. Someone who had repeated the story and hadn’t lived it.
But we had.
(MASSIVE TRIGGER WARNING. We’ve discussed before how Ash is a predator and you’re about to get some detail. Brace yourself, pour yourself a drink.)
And we told them. We told them about those doors swinging open in the nighttime. We told them about the video that’s probably floating somewhere on the dark web. We told them what we were told to feel special, that we liked feeling special.
We told Ash what age it had stopped. They focused on that. They asked more questions about what we had been through. We were vaguely trying to mask, to mimic Xanthe’s British, but the result was pitiful.
They asked who we were really. That’s how they said it. “Who are you really?”
Neb. No. Too much missing, too much changed. Star. No. No. That was too long ago. So far away. “I don’t know,” we croaked.
So. Ash told us.
I’ll be the first to admit that Story had a really hazy sense of identity. Aelaris and I tend to contrast each other so much now that I can barely believe we ever functioned as one being. We were basically a blank clay figure, ready for moulding. And Ash seemed to have a sixth sense for that.
There’s uh. No pleasant way to say this next part.
They told us that we were their pet, that we wandered into Faerie and had to pay the price. The details got graphic. They kept asking me to describe what I had been through, then would reenact it, putting me into the same role I had been more than fifteen years before, seeming to try to trigger a flashback. They zeroed in on me. Out of myself and Aelaris, they seemed to want to coax a boy out, calling me their ‘little brother.’
I’d rather it me than Aelaris anyway. She still doesn’t remember this.
They told us what age I was, the same age as when our first string of abuse stopped. They kept adding details.
Like about how the vines that held us had thorns that were filled with a type of venom that was kind of like hyper aphrodisiac, how they cut into our wrists and neck. Which explains the scars I still have, internally. They asked us what had happened to us and we told them. They reenacted it, inserting their own fantasy spin into it.
It felt familiar.
Familiar meant safe, right?
January 22nd, 2019. Xanthe:
It was the day I got my tubes out. Holy shit, I got my tubes out!
Honestly, there wasn’t much pain in healing. But I was squeamish about the body and all the fluids it had so, oh gods, the fucking tubes. To the uninitiated, there’s… liquid cast-off to surgery sites and it, uh…
I felt like a goddamned geriatric for having to move around without feeling the bizarre sensation of tubes tugging on me. That discomfort is worse than any pain, but both are better than living with 15+ pounds of breast.
Oh yeah, that was the weight difference before and after. Like goddamn.
But even more important, I had been off pain meds long enough that my dear caretaker will allow us to drink! “I have to be honest,” I told them. “I plan to get trashed tonight. Basically drinking to make up for lost time. Are you alright with that?”
I do admit, just for you, my viewers, that I’m an alcoholic. But I’m a controlled enough of an alcoholic that the only one I’m hurting is myself and the alternatives are not any prettier. That being said, I do not think that my failure/refusal to get sober has any bearing on what has been done to me.
But this is how the night went. It was the second Tuesday of the month, which I knew was Tongue: Open Mic night over at Sentient Bean. But first, Ash and I went to ‘Sorry Charlies’ to have a couple cocktails, a tray full of oysters, and a couple of decadent meals. My mum’s blatant transphobia was still haunting me and I was downing those cocktails like they were water.
Honestly, I honestly loved that Ash got to experience Open Mic. They were an essential part of my future Rochester life, meeting an essential part of my Savannah life.
And they also met Kieran.
People who have followed this blog for a while would know that this is essentially one of my worst abusers meeting another. It still weirds me out that this even happened. But it did.
I had prepped Ash for meeting Kieran. Kieran was a liar, someone who tried to make everything about himself, someone who gave into histrionics before he gave into sheer logic, but he was still better than April. Oddly. I’d barely prepped Kieran for Ash.
“Oh, by the way, I’ve met some friends in Rochester, they’re inextricably part of my life now.” Is now it must’ve sounded.
But from what I remember of that Tongue: Open Mic show, Ash and Kieran got along swimmingly. I’m pretty sure Ash had meant to do so– to be so charming as that even that Kieran, the suspicious curmudgeon, seemed taken with them. I was impressed.
I didn’t realise how horrifying it was.
10pm came. Normally, I was due back at the inn, but my surgery and the sparse off-time it had given me afforded me some after-hours spontaneity. It felt positively invigorating to agree to say, to an after-dark, spontaneous invitation to drink more, “Yes!”
I think that’s how the three of us ended up at Abe’s on Lincoln.
“I want to do something horrible tonight,” Ash confided in me.
“Well. When I have similar urges, I just sleep with [Kieran.]” Kieran was an abusive bedmate, for certain. He commonly ignored boundaries, treated a body’s limits as if they were guidelines. Whenever I wanted to be fucked up by the end of the night, I went to him.
I wonder if he ever knew that he was an act of self-harm for me.
Ash considered this as a challenge and tried to win Kieran over. Kieran almost seemed startled, to be honest. I don’t think he ever expected that a newcomer I would bring in would ask, so intensely, for his attention. I don’t even remember the dialogue, I just remember getting drink after drink, watching Ash and Kieran talking to each other. Ash was buying both of us drinks, seeming to pace themself better than Kieran and I both.
I didn’t know, at the time, that these were my life’s worst abusers, brought together by dubious circumstances. You’d think that amount of toxic coming that close to each other would actually cause a rift in the universe. Maybe it did.
Either myself or Ash brought up the idea of a threesome. I mean, I wasn’t trying to sicc Kieran on Ash, but I think I figured that Ash was going to serve as a buffer. Or. You know, I was also way too drunk, so I may not have actually had any rationale.
When we got back to my apartment, we all started making out. Kieran had a weird habit of biting peoples’ tongues– hard, damn near taking it off at the root. He apparently thought this was sexy, but Ash and I both complained about our bruised tongues for days after.
We weren’t even halfway through the stripping stage when Kieran threw up on my mattress. We all paused.
We should stop, shouldn’t we?
Kieran continued to throw up in my bathroom with Ash right next to him, rubbing his back. “It’s okay, I’m used to being party mom,” they said.
My main role after that was to make spaghetti. Carbs. Carbs will save the day! “I’m not too drunk to make spaghetti!” I said, drunkenly, saying that about five times for some reason.
Ash was fine, though. They’d had some drinks, to be sure, but they were absolutely the most sober one that night.
Imagine, Kieran, my long-time abuser in disguise, getting low-key preyed upon with the old ‘let me buy your drinks’ tactic. How bad do you have to be before fucking KIERAN looks at you and goes ‘Shit, bitch, I’m barely conscious, you need to chill’?
I can hardly describe the feeling when I woke up the next day. I didn’t remember when I’d gone to bed, but I laid there, staring at my ceiling. Mum had tried to send me a ‘Get Well Soon’ balloon. I’d tried to throw it away out of spite, but it’d gotten away from me. It floated above us in a room where neither Ash nor I could reach above our heads to retrieve it.
Now it just mocked us.
Ash. Ash was nearby, sure. That had been the case for the past few nights. But there was something else in my apartment, wasn’t there?
“[Ash]?” I croaked. I was in that odd valley between drunk and hungover where the sick feeling hadn’t quite hit me yet, but I knew it would.
“Yeah?” I heard their reply drift up from the mattress below.
“… Is [Kieran] on my bathroom floor?”
The three of us gathered ourselves and went to Crystal Beer Parlor, afterwards. Ash bought Kieran hangover food as ‘a power move.’ I don’t remember any of the conversation– I think my brain was still clogged with all of the fermented sugar from the night before.
It would actually be days later when Ash would go out to eat with Kieran on their own. There was something nagging in the back of my head, saying that this was absolutely a terrible idea. But hell, Ash had saved my life. They were pretty much family, at that point. If I could trust anyone with Kieran’s bullshit, it would be them.
Ash seemed fascinated with Kieran– knowing he was toxic, but seeming to prod, to see what he’d say and do. “You know that theory I have, that maybe [April] is just [Kieran]’s Neb?”
“I asked about her at lunch today. I said, ‘And Xanthe followed your sister here to Georgia, right?’ And he said, ‘Yeah!’” They were hanging up their coat in my closet, not seeming to notice the fact that my heart was definitely skipping a few beats. “It was weird, though. I’d ask him just common questions. At one point, he said that he was 23, then had to pause, and then say, ‘Wait, no. I’m 25.’Like he had to think about who he was. It’s… almost like you wrote him, Xanthe. Like wrote him over [April.]”
I almost wondered if Kieran’s identity would begin to fray, now that I was planning on moving to New York. But if Ash was right, then April’s fate would’ve been exactly like Neb’s. And that was more than fitting, wasn’t it?
Story’s POV, narrated by Sparrow:
From then on, every time we came to, it was Ash calling us to the front.
When we still recovered, when we moved to Crosman Terrace they were calling to us, using Xanthe’s nights to sleep with Arkady as an excuse to walk into the room they shared when Arkady had left for work and Xanthe was still sleeping.
I almost always wake before Xanthe.
Xanthe eventually got wise to this and requested Ash at least knock when they came in, that way they could have a chance to wake up too. Particularly after a nasty panic attack Xanthe had about it.
This was the response.
We liked the attention, that’s what the fucked up part. It was making us actively crumble and made our drinking worse but gods, we felt so Fucking Abandoned by everyone else. Well. Almost everyone, it turned out.
When shit started to go down in 2020, we were just so desperate to belong, to be treated like we mattered, to be wanted or needed. We kept overriding Xanthe to beg for any semblance of care. We barely knew who we were, then. Still too new, still too recently dead and recently alive. Memories were only whispers, shadows. Emotions I was drowning in.
I could finally see what I looked like, in the internal. Silver hair, one black feather wing, one white.
But it suddenly hit us, looking at ourself, that we were no longer viable as a person. Something that the system decided that was no longer needed. I wasn’t told, but I could feel it. Something destabilizing, glitching. Like a clay model that was being crushed up because someone wanted to start over.
And even worse, we were being absorbed. Because when Xanthe suddenly started having wings too, and our silver started to take on a gold cast, I wanted to scream and never stop.
The next time I was fronting was the end of March.
I was dying. Again.
But we’d decided on a name and I wanted to tell it.
March of 2020: Xanthe
I woke up in my bathroom. Well. A place that was and wasn’t my bathroom. It had been, back in 2012-2014. That shitty apartment on E 36th street that I desperately pretended I had never lived in. I was immediately struck with an existential terror– as if maybe the last seven years had been nothing but a dream, that I was still with April, still working at a fucking Asian fusion place, still paying $350 a month but it somehow eating up all of my wages.
“Hey. Look up.”
My head spun. I usually had odd dreams of accidentally having snuck back into old houses I’ve lived in, but the setting wasn’t quite so accurate. I heaved myself from where I lay, completely naked, in the bathtub. I walked over to the mirror.
You know, I did half-expect it not to be me, but I still jumped a little. The person in the mirror had short, silvery hair, a similar texture to my own– back when it was an odd poof and I haven’t yet shaved the sides. It even had two long tendrils of hair. One eye was a rich, light brown that almost looked orange. One was white, the black pupil stark against it.
They had wings, too. One black, one white. They were a dichotomy of a person, as if two people had been stitched into one.
This person looked satisfied when I jumped. “Oh, if you think that’s weird, watch this.” The person raised their right hand.
I raised my left, involuntarily. We both waved at each other, completely synchronized. My stomach dropped. “Neb?”
The person blinked their surprise. “Oh, someone still remembers that name? Wowee. No, not quite.”
I lowered my hand in a defiance and the mirror-person did the same.
It was odd, but I had known. That this was the person that was standing on the roof, that night. This was the person who kept apologising for me. This was the person that felt too much and burned away my numbness like white phosphorous. “Why do you keep trying to kill me?”
“It’s not about you.” There was definitely some bitterness in that statement.
I tried again. “Why do you keep trying to kill us?”
The mirror person frowned. “I didn’t know there was an us. I didn’t know what was going on. Now that I do, it’s kind of t–” They motioned with their right hand. My left followed them.
I could feel that they meant to say ‘too late.’ “Look, I know things are fucked up lately, but you don’t have to die. I remember Sound and Koji used to share a body but got split up. Maybe we can find something for you–”
“No offense, but this isn’t me gracefully bowing out for you. Well. Again.” Mirror-person said, shrugging. I felt my own shoulders rise and fall. “My time’s running out. Nothing can stop it once it starts. It’s happened to me before.”
I searched for the sadness in their voice but there wasn’t any. Only acceptance. “What if I find a way to defeat Chandra? Clear my name?” My heart sank when I saw only confusion on this person’s face. They had no idea what I was talking about.
They frowned. “Look, I’m just here to warn you. This– whatever this is, I feel like it’s going to try to kill you too. And it will feel like you have no choice, but in the end, there is a choice.” The person’s voice grew urgent. “We’re starting to, like, absorb into you. And that’s not good for you or me. We’re already starting to erode at each other. You can withstand this, I think, and I’m basically already dead.”
I was shaking my head. There was something so achingly sad in this, in this person who always seemed so sorry at even being alive. “Why do you think I can do it? I’m–… breaking more by the day. I’m not sleeping, I’m pretty sure the sheer cortisol is taking years off my life.”
“You got free of [April.] That was something I was too scared to even admit I needed.” They tilted their head in a sort of partial shrug. “I have a feeling you’re going to need to be that same badass again. Sooner rather than later.”
I laughed. “Gods, I pulled that off with the skin of my teeth. You remember the Saw films? It was like escaping one of those rooms.”
“And knowing her was just endless sequels of that.” They looked up at the ceiling, at something I couldn’t see. I felt my own chin start to tilt up as well, but managed to stop it. So, whatever was happening wasn’t complete just yet. “You should wake up now. And sorry about that habit. It’s mine, but it looks like it outlived me.”
I squinted at them. “What?”
“I’ll show you what I mean.” This person tapped the mirror, not violently but firmly. I didn’t expect it to crack the glass of the mirror, but it did. The shards rained down around me, as if the entire bathroom had broken like glass. I was covered in the shards, suddenly. I could feel them slicing me, draining me.
Then I was in the shower.
I was still naked and in a bathtub, yes. But now it was the bathroom at Crosman Terrace, with the familiar shapes of Big Ben and the Eiffel tower on the shower curtain as the cold water poured over me. Oh, yeah, on top of everything else, our hot water heater had gone out, too.
I was bleeding.
Actually, yeah, I remembered. I’d meant to self-harm.
Ash had been particularly cruel for the day. I remember innocuously hanging out in the living room, discussing the pandemic. I was always one for loving being out of the goddamned house, even when it wasn’t as nightmarish as this. “Once that quarantine lifts, you lot will barely even see me,” I said conversationally to Arkady, Ash, and March in the living room. I was gazing longingly out the window, perhaps into a world where I was not such a social pariah. “I’ll just be living at cafes and bars for weeks straight.”
Ash could’ve let it go. Acknowledged that I was speaking mainly on my reliance on a home away from home, but, no. Because they were Ash. “Just to make things clear, you’re still moving out next month. And you’re talking as if you’re not.” They said it firmly, as if they were standing up to a stream of bullying I was committing.
“Oh, I didn’t mean–… I mean, if you do see me, it’ll probably be at a cafe, or bar, because…” My brain was stalling, attempting to restart. “Sorry,” I finished, stiffly.
There was probably a full fifteen seconds of silence before March spoke. “I feel like I could cut the tension with a knife, right now.”
“Yeah, Xanthe, do you mind going to another room?” Ash asked pointedly, as if I were the one who made that situation awkward.
And I did. I shuffled out, not even looking at Arkady to see his reaction.
I was already furloughed. I’d wanted so badly for a break from work, but now I wanted so badly out of the fucking house. So badly wanted that distraction. I found myself looking up how much stress it’d take to kill someone, because I was pretty sure I was in that range.
There was something about repeatedly traumatizing someone and then isolating them with their own thoughts that makes the mind do all sorts of fun tricks, especially if you’re unknowingly part of a system.
I spent the next hour trying to write.
Granted, the book I was writing did feature a drug addict, so I did have a reason to Google the specifics of drug overdose. However, the story was set in 1920’s Chicago, so it didn’t make too much sense to ask how many of my modern anti-depressants it took to kill someone.
Spoiler alert, if you actually Google this, there’s a little window that pops up with a helpful number to a hotline.
That’s when I decided to self-harm to try to take the edge off and that must’ve been when I blacked out.
I surveyed the damage. No worse than it’s been, all things considered. And that nice, dopamine calm was starting to settle over my head.
I noticed there were letters carved out, on my left thigh.
I frowned. I know. That’s most of what you say anytime you’re out.
It wasn’t until I’d toweled off and cleaned up when I realised that this wasn’t an apology. It was an introduction. There was one less R than there should’ve been, and a T in there as well.
(Author’s Note: Mum actually apologised profusely and had taken the opportunity to learn how to be open-minded. We still talk. She calls me by my name and rarely slips on pronouns. More importantly, Sparrow and her now talk and have resolved a lot. As traumatic as this event was for the system, we actually have been able to move past it where she’s concerned.)