[Self-harm, alcoholism, gallows humour involving csa, brief references to suicide.]
November 5th, 2022.
Cotton and I stood in Johnson Square, waiting for our Uber. We’d had an extravagant night, with two of my closest friends and a lovely sister of one of theirs that I only recently met. We’d had dinner at Chive, which has been my premier birthday dinner spot for years. In my inworld, I was written in 1822. So, it was my 200th birthday. And I’d gone to Savannah, Georgia, to have it in my kingdom as I was entitled to.
It was the least this world owed me.
“Gods, do you see the moon through the trees?” Cotton said, in awe. “The live oaks, they’re like… cradling it?”
I smiled. Savannah always put Cotton in such a poetic mood. As it did with me. “When’s the last time you’d visited here, Cotton?”
“Probably for your birthday, the last one you had here.” 2018. He hadn’t been back since I moved. Damn. He caught the look on my face. “Of course with COVID and everything else–…”
“Oh, just tell me it’s not the same without me,” I teased dryly. “Please, it’s all my ego needs.”
Cotton laughed. Gods, I loved him. He was one of the few that I felt such a strong platonic attachment to– I’d gladly take a bullet for him, at this point. “I mean, it’s not all because of you. But you’re right, it’s not the same without you.”
Damn it, Cotton, you’re not supposed to agree with me. I felt an ache in my chest at that. “Cotton. Jesus fucking christ, why didn’t we both just stay here? We could have just dodged Kirra and bar-hopped for years. Why’d we have to leave?” I can actually pinpoint the era in which I was picturing; 2014. Before Kirra ever revealed her true control over me. Back when she was only an endearing pain in my arse, something I had to avoid and appease like a nagging wife on a sitcom. My friends were real to me– all of them. The fact that I didn’t feel real just felt like a loveable quirk. And Cotton and I were just stealing snarky, cultured moments in cafes, restaurants, and bars. Why couldn’t we stay like that? Why couldn’t I just stay in life as I was then? Just drink myself to death and spend way too much money to do it before I ever knew I wasn’t real. Hell, now that I think of it, I didn’t actually have an alcohol issue then. I drank one day a week, didn’t I? 2015 is when that changed. “Why couldn’t life just stay like this? I wasn’t broken yet.” I knew I was sounding like a plaintive child.
Cotton understood that I was having a moment. “Awww, you’re not broken.” Then he paused, for even his optimism knew some bounds. “Well, okay, there are parts of you that are broken, sure. And probably a few that are missing. But it’s like a clock, it doesn’t mean the whole clock’s broken.” There was another second before he spied the flaw in his logic. “I mean, yeah, okay, technically the clock doesn’t function anymore, but if you were a sun dial instead, you’d be fine… I’m making it worse, aren’t I?”
On the contrary, I was shaking with laughter. The branches of the Live Oaks waved above me, as if having known me for my unhinged, bird-like cackle and greeting me like an old friend. “No, no, that was somehow better than anything tactful you could have said.”
“We couldn’t have stayed, though,” Cotton assured me. “Savannah is beautiful and will always be a magical place– for the both of us. But something about it just… feeds off of its own people. You and I both felt it. We both, at different times, knew that if we didn’t leave, we’d never be able to. And it’d just swallow us whole.”
I sighed. He was right.
Savannah thrives off of its own history and nostalgia, feeding on and regurgitating itself in a spectacle that was at once both impressive and grotesque.
Cotton couldn’t have stayed at [UNIVERSITY REDACTED.] The inn would have crumbled around me like every other home I’d ever had, as undeniably opulent as it was. My nagging partner was revealed to be a virus in my head. My androgynous blonde crush would live, despite all of their insistence otherwise, to betray me for a pack of predatory faeries. My beautiful flat would become a dorm room. Alcohol would become my most stable relationship, one that would kill me more slowly than the others. But my best friends from that era– Cotton, Casey, Aberle. They were all still there.
It was quite the treasure to be allowed to keep from that era.
And, of course, my illustrious writing ability. I think we can all agree that I’m a literary genius.
The Uber was only a minute away. Within 12 hours, I’d be back in Rochester. Cotton would be back in Atlanta the same weekend. “Cotton, why the fuck did we have to grow up?”
“I don’t think either of us did. At least, writers in general never really do,” he pointed out as the headlights came into view. “But. Come on. You’ll be alright.”
There are some days where I actually believe him.
January of 2021.
AJ will insist, somehow managing to caterwaul through post after post, that they are not a thief. And how dare I accuse them of being a thief! All they did was take my things without my permission and refuse to give them back for weeks. Calling that stealing is as unfair as calling them transphobic for trying to police what constitutes as androgynous, and where would that leave us?
“They accused me of stealing because they know I hate thieves!” AJ fumed, with $200 worth of my wardrobe sitting in the boot of their car.
What they took was a ruffled black shirt, my prized velvet frock, my raven corset, and a pair of trousers. All that were apparently within a sealed plastic bag that AJ apparently thoughtlessly grabbed in their haphazard escape. I never really firmly thought they’d taken it on purpose, but the fact was, that they had taken it, probably somehow clustered among their things after I’d worn the outfit for our photoshoot back in November.
It’s funny, all this time later, imagining them orchestrating their sudden disappearance as if that would be what would devastate me. I’m sure AJ pictured, with a sadistic glee, that I would come home to a half-empty home and this would be a gut-punch to me, another layer of devastation upon the nuclear blast that was my life. That I would sink to my knees and stare at the spaces in the dust where their things used to be.
Why else, the dramatic escape? Why not a petty heads up? ‘Suck my dick, I’m out?’ They wanted it to hurt and it was a relief, and that was one of the funniest things about AJ’s lack of awareness.
But this treacherous ball of neuroses didn’t leave their key and were frequently fraternizing with people who only wished me harm. I was about as happy about that as you would expect, especially as I pointed this out to them early on and they were taking their sweet time in returning my belongings.
I was using precautions, leaving scraps of paper wedged in the door, taking my cane and securing my house every time I had come home from work. And of course, harassing my former roommate.
In the meantime, I could at least assess the damage and start to unbag some of my things. One of the first things I did was release a lot of my illustrious wardrobe from their plastic prisons, just to hang them up and admire them. It felt good, to do that. It was like I was having something vital returned to me, like wine or tea.
I also tried, once again, to clear the diatomaceous earth but I could sooner push a rock up the hill in the underworld. I would mop the floors, wring out the clay-like water in the bathtub, then come back just to see that the dust had dried in the exact pattern that I had mopped.
I posted a picture of this to FB. I found it cathartic when most of my friends called AJ a dumbass for not knowing how the dust worked. One of my favourite quotes about AJ was from someone who had them on their feed personally. “All they ever did was talk shit about you and yell at their friends.”
It was Dumptruck who commented, “That is a shit-ton of diatomaceous earth, my dude.” He then messaged me privately to see if he could help with it.
‘Yes, oh my gods, what angel sent you, please, I’ll pay for dinner.’
And thus, he was there later in that week, helping me dig my way out of my finely-ground tomb. “So, wait–” he was saying. “They were your partner and they weren’t willing to hear about DID or learn about it, at all?”
I shook my head. “No. They thought I would switch during sex and turn into a Little.”
Dumptruck’s face was a slowly morphing cringe. “Okay…?”
But Dumptruck’s help did wonders. He was also exceedingly resourceful and actually asked about my system– made me really think about it. “I’ve noticed that Xhaxhollari seems to be more of a protector for the system at large, whereas someone like Kaspar seems like your protector.” “Would you consider yourself a fictive?” “Would you consider Chandra a persecutor? And she showed up right when things got bad, right?”
Even more interesting, he shared his own journey with the household. “So, at first, I really thought it was a big misunderstanding. Being an undiagnosed system is hard and I never thought you were abusive. There was never proof of that. All the things they said about you when calling you abusive, like believing in past-lives, being confused on what happened when, ‘making up people’, being unstable and suicidal– these are all just… your brain’s way of desperately trying to keep you from finding out you have DID. Because if you have DID, it means you were traumatised to beyond the window of tolerance, and your brain doesn’t want you to know that.”
I was nodding along. I had no idea what had initially broken me. I obviously had my theories, but even now, I know there’s a lot that Sparrow and Xhaxhollari both know that I can’t. I can actually think of a few mind-breaking events and knowing that none of them were it really sort of unnerves me.
“So, I thought I’d let tempers cool and try to explain to Rowan and them how DID works. And how a lot of the weird misunderstandings and miscommunications are standard for a system that doesn’t know it’s a system.”
“Right.” It was only months ago when I too thought the situation might’ve been salvageable. It felt gratifying that I hadn’t been the only one.
“But the weird… hypocritical stuff with the faerie shit, and the–… I mean, I don’t know if it’s on purpose, but they can’t think that doesn’t affect you somehow. And [Arkady] messaged me after I’d vented about the situation and told me that this was facilitated by roleplay or chat or whatever, which isn’t even an uncommon thing for alters to introduce themselves through. I know a system who lives here in town who that’s happened to. So, it started looking a bit more fucked up than I first thought already.” Gods, Dumptruck was bloody balm for the soul sometimes. “And then Sage even mentioned you on their profile, full name and all, telling everyone to delete you because of your blog.”
“Wow.” I’d noticed Nathaniel Phillips, from the NYE party, had blocked me recently with no explanation. I would find out later that Sage had lied to him, telling him I had a crush on him and that AJ had dumped me. So, y’know, if you ever needed more proof of who’s telling the truth, I’ll just add it to the mountain. “That’s a… choice.”
Dumptruck was wringing the mop out– the water finally starting to run clear after hours of work. We were also soaking the vacuum, cleaning it thoroughly, piece by piece, so it’d stop coughing up dust every time we’d turn it on. “So, I messaged them, basically saying, ‘Hey, Xanthe’s using pseudonyms, their therapist even approves of the blog and says it’s beneficial, not wanting to be friends is fine but it’s different when you’re telling everyone in the area not to support them because they have DID and are talking about it.'”
“Right?” I couldn’t help but smile. I remember wishing that I felt worse about Dumptruck perhaps losing friends due to me, but I couldn’t help but think they were better off. “I bet they took that well.”
“Yeaaaaah.” We both laughed. “Next thing I know, I’m getting all these messages. Sage tore into me. ‘I can’t believe you, I trusted you, here you are defending an ABUSER, defending an ABUSER is just as bad as being an ABUSER yourself, how DARE you, I feel so BETRAYED.’ They were sending me message after message, not even giving me a chance to respond.”
“Oh, gods, I am so sorry.” I said this, but I was laughing. “What’d you say?”
“Um…” He looked a little sheepish. And I mean, just a little sheepish. Because the rest of this look was just concentrated sass. “Well, now that I think about it, I think I just gave up and typed back, ‘Well, whoops.’ They didn’t like that.”
Beautiful. Legendary. I laughed about that for weeks afterwards. ‘Well, whoops.’
Thanks to Dumptruck’s heroic effort in getting the dust up, the exterminators were able to come in and start effectively treating the place.
It was lucky that AJ was too publicly unhinged to have any cancelling power towards me. I gained more friends through commiserating over AJ than I had lost from our split. I hadn’t been the only one fed-up. AJ’s new hobby, as far as Casey told me, was filming strangers having public mental breakdowns and posting it to Facebook. Their side-hustle was arguing with people about their right to call people ‘breeders’ if they had children.
I used what I had saved for AJ’s surgery– over a grand, at this point, to pay off the credit card, cancelled it, then I used what was left over to decorate their old room and turn it into my study. Within a month, I’d had it decorated as my sanctuary of aestheticism, which it still remains to this day. It was really as if AJ’s absence had become the main selling point of the property.
Already, things seemed brighter. And funny enough, that was my opening– my chance. I could’ve just ended it all with no obligations, but there I was, rebuilding my life with more zeal than I’d experienced in months.
With the blog’s success and my will to live growing each day that I didn’t have to deal with AJ, I actually… didn’t really feel the need.
The thought that my initial plan was to kill myself after AJ left was actually sort of hilarious in this retrospect. The increase to my quality of life post-AJ felt absurd. I’d drunkenly admitted to Kaspar, shortly after, that I’d once planned to take myself off the mortal coil once AJ had gotten their shit together. With a delicate pause, Kaspar finally said, “Well, I think that’s the longest lifespan I’ve seen you commit to.”
I laughed. Yes, AJ’s absence was doubtlessly a boon.
Now, if only they’d just give me my fucking stuff back.
Note to self (selves)? If you’re ever in confused about who is in the wrong, remember this image AJ sent me of Rowan and Sage. Of the gloating, the disgust at our existence, the unnecessary harm. A seething hatred for me based off of what was far from my control. A cult bloating in number for the sake of hating me.
Funny enough, one of the first things I noticed was Arkady’s conspicuous absence from the photo. Even when mutually bitching over me, Arkady’s tolerance towards AJ had never been vast. My initial thought was, “I guarantee this is the sort of night where Arkady got tired of AJ and ‘went to bed early.’
Arkady would confirm years later that this was the case.
It was hard to blame myself when my enemies were this pathetic, this clustered together in a fermenting stew of misplaced bitterness. Even better– I found out later on that AJ had not only allied themself with Rowan and Vali, but come to find out, AJ had gone to fucking Apollo/Kirra.
The context of this was that River had actually been quite the fan of Living Fiction before AJ and I split. They were actually one of the dozen or so that would ask about an update if I’d taken too long to post. They were trying to tell me that they can no longer hype up the blog because, one, the inworld trauma had been facilitated by chat. (Like Xhaxhollari had already admitted to and was open about, so…?)
And two, that I was a drunk.
It’s such an undeniably shitty thing to say, ‘Oh, by supporting the healthier hobbies of someone with addiction issues, I’m just enabling them.’ Would you rather have me at the bottom of a bottle, or the bottom of a river? After my initial balking from the insult, I’d read that again. “But aj told me that they got screens from Kirra–”
AJ went to Kirra. What a fucking cunt.
AJ, dearest, why don’t you go to Bruce Evans as well? You clearly have no issue fraternizing with paedophiles.
It would be towards the end of February until I would finally get my things back. Not all of them, mind you, but the more important bits. AJ even had to drop by my job to give me their key– no words were spoken, but I noticed they’d lopped off all of their hair and made themself look like a member of the Beetles. This only added to my victory.
There was still the issue of rent and utilities. Thankfully, I was all caught up and the hotel had me back at full-time, so it was… somewhat feasible.
But I may have to do more.
March of 2021
The Spirit Room. Okay, it had a reputation. Then again, so did I. But the fact was, I’d seen even as a customer what efforts they put into inclusivity and community. I figured that if they were that duplicitous, they would have to wake up very early in the morning to maintain the two faces.
I was actually a bit sheepish about going back since I had unintentionally ghosted the first offer on the basis of sheer disintegrating mental health.
Luckily, Jake didn’t seem to hold a grudge about it. I’d explained that I’d gotten sick and had to spent a while recovering, which was mostly true. I asked if he still needed help and, luckily, he did. The hotel shifts, now back to full-time, and the bar job combined actually had me pretty balanced as far as rent went. I’d sunk no less than two grand into a bitter blackhole that yelled at me, but it actually seemed like I might financially recover from this.
I honestly figured, hey, I’m a bad judge of character, historically. My main plan was to have this place train me in bartending, and if they were everything their detractors claimed, I would take my newfound bartending skills elsewhere. But no, the Spirit Room is not.
From what I know, the claims that attempted to cancel them were all personal– mostly attributed to a former owner, and had little to do with the day to day policies and actions. I’ve seen them shelter the POC when the cops were after them for a petty dispute. I’ve seen them argue against the racist or transphobic opinions of regulars. I have the full right to take a mental health day off with no questions asked.
And my systemhood was no issue. “You and any of your others are welcome to come here and hang out,” Jake had said. Gods, that was refreshing.
And gods, the world of bartending was a fascinating one. My poison of choice was primarily wine, as my audience may surmise, but I was a willing student of mixology. The fraught history of tiki drinks, the origin of the Grog, the funeral that the British Navy held for their rum ration, the lack of fusil oil in tequila… Plus, the bar was exceedingly queer-friendly. It was one thing to be allowed to stand up for your pronouns, it’s another for a tall, bearded, Appalachian motherfucker to say, “Hey, it’s not she, it’s ‘they.'”
This, on top of my abusers grand-standing over the cancellation attempt and vowing to never come back to the Spirit Room? Perfect! It’s like it came with its own Faerie repellent!
With AJ’s absence, I was seeing more of my alters. Aberle, unsurprisingly. Vex was hovering around me to make certain I was alright. Jasper also poked his head out occasionally– I gleefully informed him that prohibition had lifted, and that he could drink openly now. His first reaction was to take a swig from my flask directly in front of a cop car, much to Xhaxhollari’s alarm and my amusement. And thankfully, I did find out what happened to Story. Well, half of Story. Sparrow was going by Alex at the time, staring at me from Jasper’s Chicago home as if I’d come to the wrong territory.
But I’d recognise that heterochromatic glare anywhere.
I remember being amused as Jasper led me on a small tour of his business, down to the barber shop that also functioned as a front for Covered Tracks, the Harvey’s speakeasy. It was almost funny when I read their list of original drinks. Granted, some had swapped ingredients and some had more time-appropriate presentations but– this was the goddamn Spirit Room’s menu.
“It was [Sparrow] that had half a mind to pair bourbon with lavender, I believe. And wouldn’t you know it, a squeeze of lemon is just the thing to bring it all together!” Jasper said to me as he motioned towards the glass bottles. His speakeasy was gorgeous– the type that had a sense of opulence and secrecy without seeming like it was trying to put anyone out. The combination of art deco, marble, and dark leather felt like one’s own study. “He also come to me with the bright idea of infusing rosemary and mint into the gin and good golly, that makes a difference!”
“Oh, that is a bright idea,” I’d affirmed. I knew well and good that these were Spirit Room ideas, which meant someone had been spying on my bout of being trained as a bartender and was now content for the ideas to be thought of has his own.
The culprit was trailing behind both of us, telling me ‘Shut the fuck up’ with his eyes so loudly that it was nearly audible. It wasn’t long after that that I needed the adoptive father and son duo for an inworld plot that took us straight into my mind’s rendition of the untamed Faerie Wilds. It was clear that Sparrow was willing to work with me, or at least tolerate the idea. I didn’t want to scare him off, but I had so many questions for him. ‘Do you remember being Story?’ ‘What actions in the Faerie saga were you responsible for?’ ‘Did you split off of Neb?’ And, most importantly, especially after he dropped some disturbing hints about Rowan, ‘Jesus Christ, are you okay?’
I wasn’t okay. It wasn’t long before that the mind realized that Jasper couldn’t quite carry on without Jack. It was no problem that Jack Harvey was a product of Arkady’s mind. As we had seen with JaK Heart, Prosper, Dominic, Romeo, and a dozen others– we had the means to forge who we needed. Jasper, of course, was over the goddamn moon, reunited with that piece of him that’d left him hemorrhaging basically the entire time I’d known him.
I was happy for him. Really!
I mean, you know, kinda stung when he took off for a solid month to live it up in Boston with the love of his life without so much as a note to me, but I get it. Jack was someone Jasper thought might’ve been gone forever, that he spent too long without.
And y’know, it’d been long enough since I was the notoriously precarious alter known as Story. I’d stopped age-sliding, I was taking on more of a leadership role in the Rail Kings. I could be stable. I’m fine! I’m stable!
I don’t have abandonment issues! I thought to myself, spending half the night throwing empty bottles at the back wall until I’d run out of steam. Pops said it was him and I against the world, but whatever, not like I took it seriously! I thought, taking bets on how much opium I could smoke before I passed out. No need to self-destruct! I told myself as I chugged a flask of whiskey before I took to the rooftop for some parkour of my own.
The inevitable happened, but instead of falling straight down to the ground, I ricochet’d off of a fire escape before my leg caught on it. I spent the next few hours with a shattered ankle, concussion, and a badly sprained hand, yelling at any passing Rail Kings to come and save my dumbass like I was a cat in a tree.
And of course, getting my ass nerf’d by my own stupidity meant that I was out of commission in the inworld for a while. I started switching in more often, mostly to drink Xanthe’s whiskey and infamously leave them with the hangover the next morning. To be fair, the first time was an accident! Then they had left me a note, through the app, that essentially said, ‘Hey, I don’t think you’re 21? I don’t think we should allow you to drink.’
This was back in the beginning days where Xanthe had everyone from established systems to psychology-enthusiasts telling them how to be a host. Most of these instructions sounded like they would be defusing a bomb instead of dealing with real goddamn people. I guess they were trying to play it cautious, especially since Averie was a little ball of trauma and posting her more prominent hang-ups on Reddit, of all places– one of which Vali found and tried to dox us for. I guess it was a reason for the extra caution, but fuck Xanthe if they thought a Harvey boy would take orders from anyone.
And hey! I was an adult!
Technically not over 21 but I was still an adult!
“Hey, remember that blog post you made about how your ex trying to control his alters’ autonomy was fucked?” I typed back. “Maybe don’t be a fucking fascist about your own system!” The hangovers I left them with were less accidental after that.
To be honest, with Jasper MIA, I sort of wanted a petty war. Maybe between Xanthe and I, we could have a race over who could destroy the body the fastest. Jasper had been one of the only things keeping me sane lately and I was coming apart at the seams.
Xanthe did back off, just requesting, not ordering, that I drink either at home or at The Spirit Room. Fine, I guess. Then Xanthe started reading a book that their friend, Casey, recommended them on an audiobook– ‘John Dies at the End’ by David Wong/Jason Pargin.
I was obsessed. It’s still one of my favorite books of all time, and I loved listening to it. It kind of reminded me of someone else’s humor, someone I could almost picture like a half-remembered dream. Each chapter gave me something to look forward to when Jasper was gone and my inworld body was recouping. But I also noticed that if Xanthe was sick from a hangover, they were more likely to only have the capacity for YouTube videos rather than a whole narrative plot. So, I still stole their whiskey, but compromised by carbo-loading and chugging water just before bed.
It was on a bike ride when we’d actually started talking. Xanthe was zooming through the trails near Lower Falls and noticed that their soundtrack list had changed considerably from what they were listening to, trading Shayfer James for Tool and Green Day. “[Sparrow], is that you?”
“If you let me keep listening to my music,” I told them, “I’m ready to talk.”
And talk, we did. I explained how I was, in fact, Story– how I’d gone by that name still until I met a little blonde slip of a thing named Averie who was calling herself Story as well. Then we both changed our names. I told them I remembered Ohio– I remembered Leia and Kara and that reading Xanthe’s blogs jogged my memory about Kirra, but not in a way that it’d felt like I lived it. Not yet, anyway.
Don’t worry, that whole thing would come back in searing detail about a year later!
The trees whizzing by us looked familiar. I remembered making a similar trail back in Marysville my stomping grounds, at one point. I told them a little about what Rowan did to me, how they knew I was different from Xanthe as they sought me out as the underaged Story. Xanthe and I both commiserated about AJ. I loved how Xanthe’s POV seemed to change in just a few short months– Rowan was a monster and AJ was an obnoxious, buggy little asshole. On that, we could deal a whole-ass truce on.
“You know how some people fear gays but sometimes it’s because they’re closeted?” I asked.
“Hear me out. I think AJ’s hatred of children is because they secretly are one.”
Xanthe cackled at that. Holy shit, their laugh did sound like a bird!
They even asked about someone named ‘Oliver.’ “My cat?” I’d asked, stupidly. Xanthe had to explain. Oliver had initially been Rowan’s answer to Jack and Jasper, seeing that Arkady and Xanthe had that connection and decided to wedge in their own.
“Rowan said that Oliver was their past-life,” Xanthe explained. “That he was this selectively mute kid who had gotten trafficked that supposedly the Harveys adopted.”
“I’ve never heard of him,” I admitted. “I don’t think Jack and Jasper have either.”
I could actually feel Xanthe making a face. “Such an odd backstory. Like. Rowan. Why did the child have to be trafficked?”
Bro, I was ready. “Rowan prefers them that way, in my experience.”
The noise Xanthe made in response to that wasn’t even human. They damn-near even crashed the bike.
We eventually talked about other shit. I told them that I felt like an odd cross between a butch lesbian and a twinkish gay man and they were like, “There’s a word for that, now. Non-binary.” I loved that word and I couldn’t wait to rub my little gremlin hands all over it. We talked about what had changed in the past decade, what separated New York from Georgia or Ohio, even about our (somewhat) shared parentage.
We talked about what else had changed. It was a real bummer to find out that Chester Bennington had died.
Okay, so, maybe we were kinda friends now. I didn’t outright hate Xanthe and I’d grown bored of trying to sabotage them. They’d heard that I was a bartender at the Tracks and had actually offered to train me on bartending in the present day. I gave them a solid ‘maybe.’
In the meantime, Jasper had come back and apologized to me personally. Which, if you know how difficult it is to get Jasper Morgan Harvey to apologize for anything, you’d know he actually felt bad. Jack introduced himself and, after a period of awkwardness where we both spent weeks circling each other like stray cats, he bought me my own turntable. Considering I was damn-near having to file for shared custody of Jasper’s, it was quite the olive branch.
Maybe I hadn’t been jealous of Jack for spending time with Jasper. I can have my envious moods, but it never was that simple. I was jealous of them both for being reunited, as if I had wanted that to happen too. But– regarding who?
It was around this time where Xanthe had brought home a care package one of their friends had sent them. They’d actually gotten a bit better at sensing when I was around and they told me without my asking, “It’s a care package. My friend, [Casey], sent it over as a morale-booster. I asked and they said it was for everyone in the system. Feel free to take a look.”
Everyone in the system? Huh. Definitely a far cry from AJ’s multi-phobic ass. Maybe Xanthe was developing better taste in friends.
One of the first things I saw and pulled out was the bird skull pendant you see above. There were also crystals, a vest for Xanthe and– a single, small polaroid. “As one egomaniac to another, I suppose I can’t blame them,” Xanthe’s sigh through this sentence was so exasperated.
The person in the polaroid was hauntingly beautiful, the sort of face people actually softly gasp at. Kind of like if Kristen Stewart and Milla Jovovich fused together and then still tweaked some genes just to make the gods jealous. Completely androgynous, long brunette hair, an intense gaze that can induce trembling if you held it for too long, angles that literal models wish they had. Already, I felt goosebumps.
Then suddenly, flashbacks.
The smell of Domino’s pizza throughout the room, watching Steve Wilkos and making fun of every moment, walks in the woods just to talk– “Oh, wow!” I said, picking up the polaroid. “Your friend looks like a hotter version of _______” Trying to remember who this reminded me of had felt like cupping water in my hands, trying to drink it in before it all spilled away again.
Xanthe had this odd, fluttering blink, like a machine that was temporarily glitching. After all, they hadn’t heard that name associated with Casey in years. “Erm. They go by [Casey], now,” they corrected gently.
“‘John Dies at the End’ [Casey]? For real? I knew that fucker ten years ago. Holy shit.” There were only vague memories circling now, of laughing, taking pictures, playing video games for hours on end. I mean, I’d heard of Casey before then. Xanthe would occasionally tell me the funnier things that Casey’s said, but as they weren’t on Facebook, I’d never seen a picture until that day. Never even made the connection to someone I thought might’ve faded from my life forever.
“Oh, yeah, I guess you would’ve known them if you remember Marysville,” Xanthe’s voice sounded slightly airy, as if something was blocking them from remembering details as well. They frowned at the picture. “They are objectively attractive. I think it’s only gotten worse over time.” I loved their tone– they were clearly irritated by that fact.
I held the polaroid in my hands. There was someone, someone I knew from Neb’s time. Had I been another alter that hung around during that period? Maybe split from Neb herself? I squirreled away the polaroid and my new pendant in my pocket. “Um, hey, would you mind me borrowing your phone occasionally? To like, text people?” I’d done it before. But I thought that this time, I might as well ask permission.
“Knock yourself out.” They hadn’t even finished that sentence before I was snatching the phone like a raccoon with a sandwich.
I was shy at saying who I was, at first. I was already getting tired of ‘Alex’ and defaulted back to ‘Story’ for a little while longer before Xanthe read ‘Gideon the Ninth’ in June, and I stole Harrow’s name for myself for a while. But I think they could tell the difference. After all, Casey had been talking to myself and my alters for ten years.
I don’t even really remember what all we talked about at first. Swapping music, joking, book recs, some flirting. I even started programming their own special ringtone to slip through Xanthe’s notice but get *my* attention.
And it felt good to just have those generally pleasant memories coming back? Sometimes, at random. I remember Xanthe recounted how AJ had shown up at their job with a bad haircut and I automatically said, “That means you won the break-up.”
“I beg your pardon?”
The vision sprang up like it was yesterday. Someone who Casey had dumped, standing in a Marysville street next to their car, looking like a goddamn Greaser in their new haircut, announcing, “It’s the new me!” And Casey’s eyes sparkling as if they had just been given a goddamn gift because they thought this was the funniest thing in the world. “I won the break-up,” they announced later.
“Yeah, if they get a haircut after you, you’ve won the break-up,” I told Xanthe. “Especially if it looks bad. Good job.”
So, yeah, talking to Casey again really helped. It’d be another year until I’d remember I was Nebula, but at this point, I’d had no idea if they even remembered her. Or if this was going to just be another eventual hook-up that would help me pass the time until–… well, what?
I mean, granted, Rochester was cool and I was starting to rub elbows with some of Xanthe’s friends. I’d started the whole Spirit Room gig on the low-key, learning second-hand from Xanthe. I remember watching the owner, also from Ohio, telling stories how he’d done a shot with Hunter S. Goddamn Thompson and had gotten thrown out from a bar that night.
You know. Maybe I could stick around for a while more, just to find out.
The bed bugs were gone! Within two months of AJ’s lack of powdery sabotage and it basically felt like we’d never had an infestation in the first place. Sometimes, I almost hoped I’d run into them, just to have the chance to gloat over that.
The next time I’d gotten my blood drawn for the doctor’s, I almost wanted them to be my phlebotomist. I even had a line prepared. “Oh, and here I thought you were done draining the life out of me.”
Of course, Kaspar would lecture me on the merits of not mocking someone whose job it was to impale me with a needle, but I felt that line might’ve been worth it. No such luck, though.
It apparently wasn’t even a year before they lost this job. I’m afraid I don’t have much proof aside from collaborating statements from two unrelated people, but they’d apparently yelled at a patient for misgendering them and was fired for it. You can see why I believe this so easily.
Meanwhile, the ‘Shadow and Bone’ live action series appeared on Netflix. It was odd, seeing the characters Arkady and I had fawned over on the big screen. Even stranger when the Darkling, someone Arkady related to, had gone through Alina’s journals in a twist that was absolutely not in the books. It was April, by that point, and unbeknownst to me, Arkady had already left Rowan behind and my blog could take some of the credit for it.
I was spending my days walking to the waterfall and my nights drinking wine and lounging in my hammock, in the candlelit study that was once AJ’s bedroom. Of course, I was still traumatized. I still wasn’t as functional as I’d like to be. Arkady was still an open wound on my soul and probably always will be. And my blogs, as they had since August, were steadily providing closure to both Apollo’s and Rowan’s victims and keeping me on life support.
And. Y’know. I still wasn’t okay. I was still a wreck. I still am a wreck, but one that managed to hold on. A cockroach that had mutated beyond the nuclear blast.
But as Casey pointed out to me–