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Thin Cold Hands

Though it’s a long time since I’ve lived in a house, I still have memories about what that used to be like which work on me constantly, mainly subconsciously. When I dream, I open a door into a composite domicile cobbled together from bits and pieces of all the houses my parents passed through during my childhood, dragging me behind them. And while I suppose it’s strange how I never seem to dream about where I live right now—this apparently safe little condominium apartment with its security guards, its concierge, its maintenance crew, its entire fee-fed infrastructure—that’s just how it is, how it’s always been. How it always will be, probably.

Instead, night after night. I shut my eyes and drift off only to discover I’m back in the dark, the dust, that symphony of too-familiar noises: scratch of claws through wood shavings as my long-dead rat skitters around in his cage, exercise wheel whirring against the bars; weird clang and hoarse, throaty hum of the furnace starting up, down deep in the basement’s bowels. Hot air exhaling through the vents, rank as some sleeping monster’s breath.

It feels like being swallowed, always, still alive. Swallowed, but never digested.

Living in a house is defined, to some degree, by the process of accidentally finding places in your “home” you can’t remember ever having seen before. In my case, this was often aided by the fact I was still young enough I didn’t mind getting dirty, nor was my “ew, gross!” reflex fully formed, making the treasures I found while exploring a mixture of the genuinely interesting and the mere disgusting. There’s a story my Dad used to like to tell, for example—before he left us—about how he once went looking for me down in the basement of a particular place (13 Hocken Avenue? 33?) only to eventually discover me crouching behind a huge piece of plywood leant against the back wall, covered in dirt, absently sucking on a dead mouse’s tail.

Sometimes, when I concentrate hard enough, I can even almost remember what doing that felt like, if not dissect what weird turn of toddler logic led me to make that particular decision: conjure how soft the mouse was in the middle but how stiff at either end, the feel of its dusty fur under my stroking fingers, the taste of its tail in its mouth, that sharply angled little corpse-curl pricking my tongue. Familiarly unfamiliar, a mere memory-sketch filtered through someone else’s version of it, someone else’s story. Because the past really is another country, and all children lunatics, in their very different ways.

I can testify to that last part for certain, especially now I have a child myself.

I don’t remember giving birth, just waking up afterwards, dazed from drugs. The feeling when they folded my slack arms around her, pressing her face to my breast. Her mouth gone round against my warm skin, seeking ring of lips so soft yet oddly cold, latching on tight; an instinctive sense of predation, of something being stolen. And then, as she started to suck, that sharp, prickling pain.

I gasped, whimpered; tears came to my eyes. It was a moment before I could find my words.

Hurts,” I told the nurse, when I was able. “Babies aren’t s’posed t’have . . . teeth, right?

The nurse stroked my slick hair, comfortingly. “Most don’t, no, but some do; no worries, it’s perfectly natural. She’s a very forward-thinking young lady, your daughter.”

Nothing for it, after that—I didn’t have the strength to do anything but lie there and let her drain me, never letting go. They had to pull her off me at last, blind crumpled face avid and a red ring vivid around those still-pursed lips, of blood and milk admixed.

“Greedy girl!” the nurse called her, affectionately. “Well, you’ll both have to work it out, I guess, eventually. Once you take her home.”

I nodded, or thought I did. Before slipping back into sleep, my wounds salved, this vampire thing I’d birthed still clutched to my chest.

But almost six years later, I still can’t say that’s ever really happened.

I don’t remember how old I was when I first figured out that if I slid aside a basket-woven screen on one side of the front deck, I could crawl underneath the house. Indeed, I don’t even really remember which house it was, though it must have been one from the part of my childhood after Dad left, since the property in question had both a porch and a garden, as well as a back yard. In the crawlspace it was dim and cool, soil soft beneath me and stone joists on every side like squat little pillars, holding up the walls, the floorboards, the house itself. I had no idea of danger, only that elation which comes with exploring, scuffling around on my hands and knees like a badger in shorts. I enjoyed knowing what I thought nobody else knew, seeing what I thought no one else could have seen.

And it was down there, at last, that I found the grave.

I don’t know what attracted me to that spot, exactly: a slight hump under my hand, faint but unmistakable, like reading braille. I looked down, squinting, but could more feel that see it. Mapped out its dimensions with that one-handed reach my piano teacher always told me she envied, middle finger stretching elastically, thumb rotating in its socket so the nail pointed to my elbow. It was my full reach long and three slightly spread fingers wide—pointer, middle, ring. It narrowed at the top and bottom, like a seed-pod, so eventually I simply dug my thumbs into the middle and peeled it open. Milkweed fluff spilled out, dirty white silk, along with a flood of bones I picked out one by one, reassembling them there in the part-light. Once painstakingly pieced back together, the bones reminded me of any classic fossil, crushed like an insect between two rock-beds . . . but not quite. Two arms, check; two legs, check. One skull, snoutless, eyes forward-facing, nude grin full of delicate needle-teeth. The remains of a spine, yet nothing that looked like a tail. A rib-cage, mostly intact, though with its second and third rib down on (my) left-hand side wrenched and cracked out of shape by that rusty four-inch iron nail stuck in between them—I removed it so they’d lie flat, slipping it into my pocket. Wishbone slope of a pelvis, half-cracked, a socket-hole on either side for a pair of delicate, too-sharp hip-bones. An unstrung spray of what could only be finger-joints scattered at either end of its out-flung radiae and ulnae, tiny as caraway seeds.

And oh, but they were cold to the touch, all of them—so damn cold. Cold enough they crisped and pulled at my skin like freezer-burn.

Light as a bird’s yet impossible to break, with two more things spread out like huge, dried oak-leaves left at the very bottom, frayed but intact. And though I couldn’t possibly have known what they were back then, whenever I think about them now, they look just a bit . . . just a little bit . . . like wings.

Tinkerbell, I remember thinking. Someone murdered Tinkerbell.

But even as I stroked those bones a light began to kindle at the heart of them, icy-colourless, traced thin as a thread along where the vertebrae should have been strung. And I thought I heard a thin ringing like a half-full glass’s rim being toyed with begin, almost at the same time, somewhere off in the distance . . . or no, maybe not; far closer, maybe, though muffled by my own skull’s echo-chambers. A sick, dim bell tolling out from deep inside, fluttering like some insect mired in wax and cartilage alike. The very idea, in turn, coming with an image attached, so sharp I could almost see it: a flash-bulb going off behind the curve of one ear to show the culprit caught inside, fluttering between hammer and drum, silhouetted to its delicate little black leg-hairs.

None of which I much liked, so I recoiled instead, knocking my head on the boards above—scrabbled back, feeling blind behind me for the screen, afraid to avert my eyes; missed it not once but twice before I found it again at last, wrenched it breathlessly aside and spilled back out into sunlight, my hair full of dirty cobwebs. Before Mom heard me scrambling around in the grass and threw the back door open, yelling: “You better not be under that goddamn deck again, Emme, goddamnit!”

That night, in the bath, I watched dirt sluice off me down the drain, turning the clear water gray; waited for my mother to come tell me to get dressed, brush my teeth, turn that light off too, because we weren’t made of money—and thinking, as I did (glimpsing it briefly between the lines of my own mind, pretty much, in the very fuzziest, least explicit of ways) how everything I did, everything I was allowed to do, was only ever at someone else’s sufferance. Since that was always the scrambled background signal lurking behind all my childhood memories, same as everyone else’s—the part I, like them, only grew to understand later on, when I was finally old enough to put a name to what I’d never been able to recognize before. That constant feeling of helplessness, of misunderstanding, that everything was decided for me, that I had no control . . .

Because I just didn’t, ever, from birth almost to the moment I moved out. Because some would say I never had more than the illusion of control, even after that.

Thus all the small rebellions, small sins, small betrayals which make up every coming-of-age narrative: cruelties practiced on me versus cruelties I didn’t yet know better than to practice on whatever other, weaker things I could get a hold of—kids, animals, objects. The first blunt, sticky stirrings of sexuality paired with an equally itchy feeling of being not yet fully formed, both equally impossible to do much about. And knowing, on some level—not accepting, just knowing—that all those unslakable aches are only ever half the problem.

I found the iron nail in my pocket when I threw my jeans aside and fell asleep holding it, clutching it between two fingers. Hours after, meanwhile, I jerked straight up in bed with no earthly idea what I might’ve heard to wake me, ‘til it came again: a drone pitched somewhere between cicada’s whine and bumblebee’s buzz, so deep it almost read as a moan. No sleeping through that, so I crept to the door instead, heart in my throat—cracked it, stared out, took a pair of shaky steps into the hall, nail raised like a cross with its sharp end pointed towards that noise, angling further up the louder it became. Then watched the same sort of wintry light I’d seen beneath the deck begin to form at the corridor’s other end, moving ever-closer, casting a flickering, fluttering shadow against the wall . . . but when it finally drifted ’round the corner, that’s somehow all it was: just empty light, a fire without a -fly.

The shadow projected on top of it, though, self-lit to twice natural size—it was a hovering figure whose outline reminded me of that body-bag pod I’d found while rooting through the deck’s cool dark turned inside-out, its silhouette half down, half dirt. Spread finger-claws like two bundles of pins against lace-leaf dragonfly wings, not two but four (or maybe six), all blurred and trembling with motion; profile deformed by bulgy beetle-eyes and a gothic pair of mandibles, those horned jaws spread as if to speak, though any pretence at words stayed caught in its invisible throat’s curve. And all with that glass harmonica buzz soaring ever higher, painful enough it made my eyes cross, my sight winking out so fast I barely felt the floor hit my face—

My Mom still tells the part of the story I have no clear access to, sometimes: how she heard a thump and got up to investigate only to find me passed out in the hall with my pants urine-soaked, my forehead bruised and some sort of weird rash ’round my mouth, lips digestive-acids puffed like I’d puked myself unconscious. How my throat hurt too much to talk. How I’d also fallen on my own wrist, bending it underneath me at an angle, full body weight coming down on it at once; they found a hairline fracture at the hospital, casted me up and would have sent me home, but I had a panic attack when I heard that so they let me stay a few days more. In the intervening time, Mom arranged for me to go visit my Dad out of season, and by the time I came back she’d not only sold the house, but already found another one.

The fastest move we ever made, and I wasn’t even there to help.

Sometimes I go into my daughter’s room, all pink and sparkly, and look at her while she’s asleep. While her eyes are closed, at any rate; she’s very good at lying there, flat chest going steadily up and down. I look at the pillow she clutches in her arms and wonder how fast I could rip it away, press it to her face—if I could trust myself to be fast enough, strong enough. To not slacken, for once. To stop believing in the lies that are her life.

Other times I wake to find her standing in my room, looking down on me. Her eyes give back the light, even with my blackout blinds pulled down.

“I love you, Mommy,” she tells me, smiling. “Just like you love me.”

“Yes,” I agree.

“All mommies love their children, and all children love their mommies. Isn’t that true?”


“That’s why the fairies used to steal the real children, you know, and replace them. Because they didn’t have any mommies of their own.”

I swallow. “Then why didn’t they steal the mommies, instead?”

She tilts her head to one side, not quite smiling. “Now, that I don’t know. What do you think?”

Because they like to lie, I think, but don’t say. Because they’re old, and evil, and cruel. Because they wanted it to hurt as much as possible, when the mommies found out what they’d done. Because they didn’t think we were capable of doing anything about it, ‘til they found out better.

Ah, but then they figured out another way, some of them—or only just the one, maybe. Long after we’d already killed them all.

I look up at her, my daughter, saying none of this. Because she is my daughter, after all; half of her, or even a little more. My flesh and blood, my only. And that thing squished down inside, it can’t really be most of her, can it? There has to be something else, another percentage—a little more, a little less, whatever. Some parodic variety of human soul, even with that shard of something else stuck inside of it—those delicate skeleton wings too flesh-pinned to flap, shadow-bones caught in a calcium cage. Disease and cure born interlocked, zero sum, each forever at war with its own potential.

What she was before, I’ll never understand. And what she is is now—

Something that can change, now it’s enough like us to be able to, I think. She’s changed already, after all, just to become herself . . .

(whatever that is)

“Those are just stories, though,” I tell her, trying my best to believe it. “Right, honey? You know that.”

“Of course, mommy.”

I open my arms. “Hug me, please,” I tell her, to which she nods, and does. The way she always has, oddly enough, from the very first—something I never predicted, not ever. Something I never thought I’d grow to need.

But she always lets go first.

“Good night,” she says, turning her back on me, as I feel all my empty parts turn cold once more. That hole inside me where she once hid, folding back upon itself again; this scar yet unhealed, never-healing, gaping wide under my stomach-set hands like that grave beneath the deck.

So: from a childhood rooted in nightmare, I grew up, liking myself a little better with every passing year. It wasn’t that I’d been actively unhappy, by most standards, but it was never my favourite thing, either—the loneliness, the social weight, the dependency. Being dragged from one place to another, having rules set and re-set apparently at random, never fully understanding why. Being unable, as yet, to see the adults around me not as infallible authority figures but imperfect human beings like the one I was flowering into, just as trapped in their own roles, by their own mistakes.

Some people talk about the golden light of childhood, call it “the best time of [their] li[ves],” but those people must have been lucky at best, stupid at worst. Whatever they felt, I didn’t.

Then again, whatever I saw, they didn’t.

“Why do you find people so exhausting?” my mother asked me once, when I was still in university. “Is it because you think they’ll judge you? You shouldn’t. My friends all think you’re charming. ‘Emme’s so easy to talk to,’ that’s what they tell me.”

I laughed. “You do get that I work at that, right? I have to watch myself, all the time—make sure I don’t talk about anything real. Just let them talk about themselves, and act like I’m interested.”

“So . . . you’re not? Is that what you’re saying?” She paused. “What about with me?”

“I’m always interested in what you have to say, Mom.”

“Well, how can I believe that now?”

Just forget we ever had this conversation, I didn’t suggest. Because if she couldn’t see how important she was to me by now, how she had pretty much always been the only person whose good opinion I truly wanted to keep, then I certainly didn’t know what more I could do to convince her.

But that was how it’d always been for me since that day under the house, that night in the hall, though it rarely occurred to me unless I stopped long enough to feel it: how sometimes I felt so utterly false, an empty mask over a hollow, echoing shell. Or how other times—more times than I liked to admit, in fact—I felt anything but.

I graduated, got a job and did it diligently enough not to be fired, making no enemies yet forming no attachments. Mornings I arrived early, a smile on my face; nights I went straight home, watched TV, slept dreamlessly. Nothing changed, or not very much. Nothing changed, until it did.

Until it all did.

The building I lived in that year was a 1970s-era tower of furnished bachelor and one-bedroom rental suites, the best I could afford until I got my CPA certification. The elevators broke down a lot and the stairwells stank. I learned to recognize people by their faces, even if I never knew their names—the gaunt, too-young hooker I sometimes passed down on the street at night, loitering next to the Neighborhood Watch sign in nothing but a Maple Leafs jersey and short-shorts; a flannel-jacketed guy, black beard so thick you could barely see his mouth; a heavyset lady with a Jamaican accent I only ever met coming out of the mail-room, who always told me exactly the same three stories about her grandkids. I was counting days and dollars towards a telecommuting job I’d already interviewed for and a different apartment, so I kept my head down, nodding politely at anyone who approached me.

The basement laundry suite was technically closed after nine p.m., but the lock had been broken since I’d moved in and nobody cared if you ran loads at night, which was useful to an insomniac whose days were spent cramming tax law. More often than not, I found it easier by far to fall asleep to the washer-dryer’s rhythmic susurration than I ever could in bed. I was drifting off that night, head down on my arms, when the door suddenly slammed open: Blackbeard stood there, mouth working as though he was chewing taffy, staring just past me (the closest he ever got to eye contact with anybody).

Excuse me? I think I thought about saying; my own mouth might have opened, at least part-way. But it was already too late.

“You’re . . . very rude,” he blurted, before I could. “It’s not right to be—like that, you don’t have to . . . You don’t feel, don’t want—it’s fine, that’s fine, it’s okay. But you don’t, you don’t just get to—fucking IGNORE people!”

No warning at all before that last shouted word or the punch he slammed past my ear, right into the cement wall behind. Any potential scream choked off short, a hoarse gurgle; my gut spasmed like a full-body standing crunch, as Blackbeard shook his bloodied fist in my face. “You shouldn’t get to—you don’t. Get to do that.”

Oh, Jesus, I remember thinking, through a buzzy, electrical blur. This isn’t supposed to happen. I’m moving out in five weeks . . . four? I don’t, I don’t, I can’t—

Mimicking his own words without thinking as if he’d actually managed to hit me, so hard he’d gotten inside my head. And then, and then: the light fuzzed out as Blackbeard pushed in, eyes still averted but his other hand lashing out, anything but gentle. I felt his fingers grip my jaw and twist, thumb digging into the hinge; felt the muscle spark, my scalp heave upwards, like it was tensing to jump off my skull. Followed by pain—not the kind you’re expecting, though. Or me, either.

From within, like thin cold hands inside my throat, clawing upwards; sharp wings along my tongue, scoring the muscles so my scream dropped even as it broke my voice-box, hoarsening, blood-hot. I lurched forward, spasming, to loose a gush of bile right at his feet . . . saw him jump back from the hot splash, exclaiming, even as something far more solid rocketed its shimmering way out along with the rest. I remember Blackbeard spinning to stare as it whipped around the laundry room, eyes wide, like maybe it was the first thing he’d really ever seen in his life, his own mouth wide—

Shut that, for Christ’s sake, I might’ve told him, if I’d only been able to speak. Not even knowing why I would’ve wanted to warn him in the first place, aside from the simple fact that he was human, like me. Like we both were. Like that thing . . . wasn’t.

(Still isn’t.)

I knew that light, you see, long before I recognized the noise that came along with it. That dim, sick, wax- and meat-clogged insect trill. Dead Tinkerbell’s ghost risen from the grave, and not some long-gone feverish trauma nightmare, after all: first in the dirt under the deck, then in the dusty upper hall, then inside me, then him—but not for long.

It plunged, straight between his lips and down his throat. I saw his neck bulge, heard his breathing clog, choke as he fell back against the wall, sank down, clawing his Adam’s apple. Saw the bulge disappear through his collarbones’ gate while he threw his head back, trying to scream. Saw blood burst upwards, thick and raw, like he was a blender someone’d turned on after forgetting to close the lid. I watched him spasm and drum and buck and bleed and shrink as if being deflated, consumed, a plastic bag in a fire—face slack, eyes collapsed, from dying frenzy to motionless corpse in an instant. Watched a blood-outline briefly limn the linoleum beneath him before quick-drying Hiroshima-style to black, to grey, to dust.

I clung to the nearest dryer, still warm but no longer rumbling, sobbing for breath and trembling far too much to stand; I think there actually might have been tears on my face, though it’s not like I had a hand free to check. The silence stretched on: one beat, two. Two and a half.

Then: Blackbeard’s throat swelled once more, jaw hinging back open. Something clambered out of him, glistening fiercely; something gaunt and tiny, that same dimly ringing clot of light now stained purple by a coating of gore, bright red over bluish white. Something with hands like microscopic spiders and joints hinged high above its back, leaf-wings blurred like a hummingbird’s hazing the air, flicking the very last of him away with each successive beat—crimson, then pink, then clear, faster and faster, an explosion turned halo. Sparks falling upwards, scarring the eye like solder.

And right in the centre, brightness-wreathed the way sun looks through ice-slicked petals on a frozen flower, a face reminiscent of nothing so much as the skull I’d once touched turned inside out was angled my way: black bug-eyes, mandible-set jaws, teeth like tiny bone needles. Seeming to grin in sheer delight now it could finally see me again first-hand after all those years stuck down inside my chest, fluttering there in the wet red dark like a second beating heart.

This time, it was one of my neighbours who found me, passed out cold on the laundry-room floor next to a pile of Blackbeard’s empty clothes, left balled up in his wake as if he’d simply evaporated out of them. The cops they insisted I call really only briefly considered me a suspect in his disappearance, especially after his mother let them into his room and they discovered that weird half worshipful, half threatening stuff he’d written about me all over the walls. I took advantage of the attack by using it as an excuse to move out far sooner than scheduled, packing up so quick I think I might have left that last load of laundry behind me. One way or the other, I’d been in my new apartment for at least two months already before I woke up feeling nauseous.

Four positive home pregnancy tests and a doctor’s trip later, I found out why. Mom wanted me to get an abortion, assuming Blackbeard had to be the father, but I told her he couldn’t be—I’d had a rape kit done as part of the police investigation, taken the morning-after pill just in case, the whole nine yards. I claimed I’d had a one-night stand during my recovery period and just hadn’t wanted to admit it, but that I was more than ready to raise the kid on my own, if I had to.

Given the circumstances of my daughter’s not-so-immaculate conception, I think Mom’s first guess was more likely true than not, in some insane way. But it isn’t as if she looks like him, thank God, any more than she looks like me.

Or anyone else.

And now, years later, I lie here thinking how neatly the thing she used to be must have re-folded itself into my body, having finally fed enough to be seen clearly—a bright red streak down my gaping throat, knife to sheath, stuffing the scream back down. How she must have curled into my womb, nesting, waiting for me to quicken.

Knocking at the inside of my as yet un-cracked pelvis to be let out into this world, so she could occupy it in what passes for her version of flesh, the way her long-dead former self surely used to.

These days, along with my usual work organizing other people’s money, I also make jewelry and sell it on Etsy. It’s stress relief and a second stream of income combined, something to keep my hands busy as I watch the same bunch of too-young movies over and over, just because my daughter likes them: Miyazaki’s My Friend Totoro, classic Pixar, anything Disney. Just sort and string, string and sort, match colour to texture to pattern—let each necklace grow organically, intuitively, in the spaces between my own long, slow breaths. As a form of self-comfort it’s cheaper than booze or anti-depressants, and better for the complexion; as a form of meditation, it certainly helps the hours pass. And assembling the components helps me plan my free time, too, now that my daughter’s old enough to ride the subway on her own, surrounded by that floating gaggle of girls whose names clog the smartphone she’s had since she was six. Now that she has her own devices she can leave me from, and I can leave her to—all the interests I tried to distract her with when she was undeveloped enough that something old and odd and hungry still occasionally seemed to peep out through her eyes: dance lessons, art lessons, drama lessons. The skills she uses to construct a mask of humanity no one will take notice og long enough ask questions.

Her teachers like her, apparently; everybody does. Her marks are high. She has social cred I could only dream of at her age. And sometimes the other mothers on my playdate phone tree chide me gently about the amount of freedom I allow her, how I’ll often just hand her a twenty and my MetroPass, telling her to go have fun. She knows to text me if she wants to stay out later than discussed, for all  I rarely answer. I suppose, on some level, what I’m waiting to see is exactly how long I can go without talking to her before she simply decides to never come home at all.

It’s a dangerous world, Emme, they say. Think how you’d feel if you lost her. To which I simply smile, sometimes having to physically restrain myself from replying: I should be so lucky, ladies.

But I’ve never been that lucky.

Last night she was out with her besties, probably chaperoned by Linda’s Mom (or Rosie’s, or Ning’s, or Gurinder’s—anyone but me, obviously). I sat in front of the TV with my nature shows on and my bead-box out, wondering why it ever surprised me to consider that the world might once have been full of whatever ended up buried beneath my deck, whole shining swarms of them, fluttering schools flocking like starling across the skies in search of prey and singing their pale, trilling songs, their creepy ghost-insect buzz: bioluminescent, poisonous, each one a miracle designed to latch on and bite deep, tearing free chunks of man-meat with their tiny lamprey mouths. Each one spinning silent yet deadly through the air like sparkler-drift, like acid snowflakes, like glass bells lit from inside and thrown high ‘til gravity pulled them back to ground, wounding on contact.

Feeling around in the box, I felt my fingers touch something familiar and pulled it out, frowning: the nail. I hadn’t remembered I still had it. So I polished it with oil, knotted it on a length of rawhide and tied it around my neck like a pendant, tucking it away under my shirt. And when my daughter came home at last, she opened her arms for a hug before flinching away when that rusty iron length of it touched her chest, even through a layer of cloth: “That hurts,” she said, with just a hint of surprised dislike. “Wow, Mom—what is that, down there? Ugh.”

I tapped my own chest, drawing a circle around the nail as it swung, angled down, pointing the way to my Caesarian scar. “Just something new, repurposed. Want to see?”

Her eyes widened slightly, strangeness flickering just beneath the surface, an anglerfish’s phantom lure. “Pass, thanks. What’s for dinner?”

I’d made her favourite earlier, liver and bacon, no onions. She ate it with her hands, licked the juices from her fingers, then waited until she thought I wasn’t looking to tip up the plate for the rest. After her bath I saw her standing in front of the mirror, frowning, a hand over her breastbone. “I can still feel it,” she complained. “That thing of yours. Mom, you have to get rid of it.”

“Of course,” I agree. “Did it scratch you?”

“It burnt me. Look.”

She fanned her fingers, showing me a small, red mark between the nubs where her breasts still hadn’t quite grown, as yet. She’s not shy, my daughter, but I know it annoys her that other girls already have boyfriends, or the middle-school version thereof. Tall and slim she might be—taller than me, soon—but she reads like a child, an orphan princess, a wanderer through wooded places. She won’t let me cut her silky hair, which falls to her mid-back. Her hands are long, good for piano. No one can tell me what colour her eyes are, so large and odd, sockets like an owl’s.

I am at the wide world’s mercy, those eyes say, always. No one is like me, not exactly. Come closer, don’t be afraid—see me, pity me, help me. I need you. I need.

When she goes to hug me again before bed, she finds she simply can’t: the iron’s just too disturbing to her, even hidden inside my fist. It makes her brows furrow. And I want to be strong, looking at her—hopefully, this will be enough to make her leave, eventually. Hopefully I’ll never be weak enough to take it off again.

From the way I talk about my Mom sometimes, you’d assume I hate her, though the opposite is true. But I never write about the parts of my life where she and my Dad were together, when I was untaintedly happy, or thought I was. I can barely remember what it was like to be that person.

I mean . . . in high school I fell in love with a boy, and every time we were together it felt as if we were wrapped so tight we lived inside each other, a strange knot of bliss, always tightening. The actual time we spent enmeshed was relatively brief, but it remade the world. And the minute we broke up it was like none of that ever happened—there was no point in remembering any of it, because all it meant was that at the time, I just hadn’t realized yet that it didn’t mean anything except how stupid I’d been not to see the end of it all coming, to think I’d actually been loved.

He was very upset when I told him that. “Well, it meant a lot to me,” he said. “Obviously not,” I replied. “Considering you broke my fucking heart.”

So that’s what it’s like, for me: my parents broke my heart, and after they divorced none of my “happy” childhood meant shit. I’ve enjoyed the adulthood I’ve eventually been able to have with my Mom, and (to some extent) my Dad. But that right there, the holidays, the photos, all those hugs and kisses, those goodnight stories? That was a lie.

I just didn’t know it yet.

I know how that realization felt, how it hurt—but now, years later, a mother myself, I finally know how it must have hurt my own mother to see me suffer. Because that’s the other side of it, of course, the sting in the tail. So when I look at my daughter and think that I don’t want to break her heart, it isn’t just because I don’t fully understand what she might do, if I did. It’s because even if I don’t think there was ever a time when I believed she was fully human, I know there must have been a time when she did. When she didn’t know any better.

Is that just another trick, another lie? I don’t know. I can’t know.

I don’t think I ever will.

Will she search the rest of her kind out when she leaves me at last, one by one, wherever they’re buried? Will she teach them to snare humans of their own, playing on them the same sort of trick she played on me? I hope not, and not just for our sakes.

For hers, as well.

One day, a long time from now, for me—but maybe not for her—she’ll go away one last time, forever. And even now, even now, I still can’t tell if that prospect makes me happy, or not. Only that it’ll happen, either way. That it’s beyond my control, and always was.

Be different, I want to tell her, explicitly, before she leaves me. Be yourself, whatever that is—not was, is. Make your own path.

Fly away, stranger, and don’t come back.

I think, but I don’t say; I hope, more and more. I try not to pray. While she looks at me now and then, her strange eyes throwing back the light, not quite smiling. And I hear her voice inside my head the same way I once did, so long ago: like a glass bell, a distant ringing. Like the buzzing of some monstrous fly.

But how can I leave? It seems to say. I’m yours, after all, like you’re mine. Your very own.

Thin cold hands reaching down again, tightening around my heart. Squeezing ’til I feel they fingerprint embed on the tissue, ’til the veins bulge and the chambers contract, resentful love pumping out like blood.

You are home, mother.

My home.

Originally published in LampLight, Volume 6, Issue 4, June 2018.

About the Author

Formerly a film critic, journalist, screenwriter and teacher, Gemma Files has been an award-winning horror author since 1999. She has published two collections of short work, two chapbooks of speculative poetry, a Weird Western trilogy, a story-cycle and a stand-alone novel (Experimental Film, which won the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel and the 2016 Sunburst award for Best Adult Novel). She has two new story collections from Trepidatio (Spectral Evidence and Drawn Up From Deep Places), one upcoming from Cemetery Dance (Dark Is Better), and a new poetry collection from Aqueduct Press (Invocabulary).