“I am your mirror, Oneira. Your every thought, dream and behavior are reflected back at you. Don’t forget that,” her mom intoned, her eyes focused on the floor-length mirror in front of them in the living room.
How could I forget? Oneira thought. You tell me almost every day. She wrapped a coil of copper-red hair around her finger and rubbed it again and again as her mom continued.
“Everything you do, I will do back to you.”
Oneira flinched. She knew that too well. Even as a little girl, she’d known if she threw a tantrum, her mom would throw one too. If she lied about something, her mom would lie back to her. If she made a mistake in the kitchen, her mom would ruin dinner when it was her turn to cook. The only difference was that strictly speaking her mom increased the severity of her “crime” by a lot, instead of replicating it exactly. It was all a pantomime. A farce to hurt Oneira’s feelings. Not that she would ever tell her mom that it was working.
Standing here, in front of that blasted mirror, reflecting Oneira’s whey face, her puffy eyes, and her mom’s proud upturned face, her saggy body encased in a fluffy bathrobe, Oneira wanted to scream. But she couldn’t. She just wished she’d never brought up the idea of going to the store by herself, a store only two miles away from the beach. All she’d wanted was to buy some jewelry and a little something to honor the seventh anniversary of her father’s passing.
The few friends who still dared to call, if they could get past her mom’s Cerberus guard of the telephone, spoke of the things they did, tried to invite her to go places with them. But usually around the time the conversation got interesting, Oneira’s mom’s five-minute timer would go off and she would cut the phone conversation. Rule of the house.
“You will never speak of this again. Your place is here at home. Taking care of me, as is your duty. Remember, if you whine or get angry, I will simply copy you. Because…”
“I am your mirror,” Oneira said sufferingly, her stomach in knots.
“Good.” Her mom softened, her onyx eyes losing their predatory glint. “You are an ok kid. Too much of your father in you. But I’ll fix that.
“Give me a hug,” her mom said, her arms outstretched. Oneira took a little too long and her mom shifted, her lips tightening. Oneira hurried and gave her mom a sloppy hug.
Afterward she rushed to her bedroom and threw herself back into mapmaking. Her rough sketches and pens waited for her patiently. She looked in a blur of tears at the paintings of lighthouses on her walls, her collection of nautical ounce coins, ethnic masks and rugs her dad had brought back from his travels. So much for that. She never got out of the house by herself. Her mom always had to come. Oneira was fifteen. She could go out on her own, she knew it. But it would never happen without her mother’s permission.
She pushed the historical maps on her bed away and capped her pens with shaking hands. Seven years. Seven years since her dad had passed away. If he were here, this house would be alive again. Joyful. Semi-joyful at least. Her mother had always had her dark moods. Only her dad had been able to quell those moods, when she let him. But no, he had to get lost at sea and never come back. Transforming her once fairly mellow mother into a husk of her former self. Leaving Oneira stranded in this ancestral home, on the beach, lost at sea while solidly on land.
Changing her mind, she grudgingly pulled her half-finished maps to her and added details: landmarks, roads and secret treasure troves. This land had had many hidden pirate spots back in the day. People avoided the beach because rumors had it that many a pirate, escaping the Old World, had gotten lost here in the cove and died, either from mutiny or starvation. Odd occurrences littered the cove from as early as the 1600s: bright patches of light in the waves during pitch darkness, almost like St. Elmo’s fire, but more ghostly, more translucent and wicked; murmurs and echoes of men’s voices floating above the cove like entities; strange cloud formations reminiscent of apocalypses; lava monsters streaking across the volcanic sand in the hours leading up to the dawn. There was more, but that was enough to keep both tourists and locals away. A few deaths took care of the treasure hunters and thrill seekers quickly.
Oneira’s mom used to walk on the beach with her. But since her dad’s passing, it was as if his ghost had joined the legends and chased her away. Oneira wanted to go on the beach for a walk. She didn’t mind the whispers, the clouds, the ghosts. She perused her maps again, noting with despair that her proportions were slightly off. She added some shading and more hidden spots for treasures and booby traps. She closed the historical map books. She only ever needed them as a to look up some details she wasn’t sure of. She liked making her own maps, even if they weren’t perfectly to scale.
The house phone rang. Oneira bolted, flying out and into the kitchen. Before she could reach it, her mom arrived and answered.
“Hello. Who is this?”
After a pause, her mom said, “She doesn’t want to talk to you right now. Please don’t call back.” Her mom ended the call.
Oneira’s eyes widened.
“That was Jessica. I don’t like her. I guess she hasn’t figured out that calling is useless.”
Oneira refrained from saying that she liked Jessica, and that her friend was one of the few who still kept in touch after Oneira’s dad’s passing. Nothing she’d say would make a difference. She’d learned that.
“Go back in your room and play,” her mom said, adjusting her bathrobe. She sat down and looked through her address book for someone to call.
Oneira swallowed her ire and stomped to her room. She took one look at the maps and grabbed them like she was going to rip them apart. All she’d ever wanted was to travel. To go with her father on his trips; to sail into the ocean during a storm; to find unique artifacts and spread rumors about their magical nature. She wanted a squad of friends to come with her and be her pirate crew. They would be good pirates. The kind that found and restored artifacts; discovered new populations; cleaned up the ocean along the way. Never having a home on land, constantly looking to the horizon.
Why did her dad have to die?
Too much self pity, she thought, anger collapsing like leavening bread. I need to go out.
She was supposed to tell her mom where she was at all times. But she didn’t want to. No. Today she would sneak out and tread in the waters. Say a private prayer to her dad, wherever he was in the fathoms of the deep.
She walked across the sand, its sharp brittleness mildly uncomfortable on her callused feet. The waves roared back and forth, protesting at the gray sky, at the fog that clung to everything like cobwebs. A wall of secrets, hiding the horizon from view. Oneira grabbed at her hair to stop it from entering her mouth. Her rain jacket squeaked against her jeans and latex crop top. The damp tickled her bare stomach. She walked with head bowed for a while, memorizing the trail she’d left behind on previous walks. The waves teased her feet, swiping across her toenails delicately. The cold gave her goosebumps, all the way up her nape.
She looked up finally and was met with a fog tsunami, staring broodingly at her. Its massive girth spread across the sky, vertically and horizontally, threatening if one didn’t know better. A wall of sleet blue curling and spreading the more she looked. She laughed at it, and sat on the beach.
“I miss you, Dad,” she said out loud, wishing the tsunami fog would come and claim her. “I am so alone. Mom is alone. I think that’s why she gets angry so much.”
“I don’t think you’re really dead. I think you are an elemental. Like those things that Ariel becomes in Grimm’s story after she dies. That’s not really death though. If you’re part of the skies and the earth you’re not dead.”
“I want to see you. Find you one day. I want to go traveling. Make and keep my own friends. I want to be free. Is that too much to ask?”
She always expected a response. None ever came.
“I drew these. I remember some of the secret paths and legends you told me,” she said, showing her maps to the sea.
“Here is Grommel’s lair, hidden behind the rocks of Bain. The seaweed and shelves of dried lava cover his stash. And here is the Gynell River, the one that Driv got lost in and where his ship sank.”
She kept showing her maps until the endless rumble of the sea washed her voice away.
Oneira hugged herself and clutched the maps to her chest. She should go home. Go home, be an obedient daughter and wait until the next anniversary. Hoping and praying that her life will have improved.
Suddenly the fog was all around her. She couldn’t see anything past the tip of her nose. She waved a hand in front of her but it did nothing. A wind ripped at her, tore the maps from her hands. She cried out and reached into the clammy confines around her. The maps were gone.
Bright patches of light danced and twinkled. She looked up and down, but it was hard to tell if it was the land or the sea. They shimmered and waved, like old friends. She reached out, trying to get close to the water.
A force yanked at her, from the inside, like something had hooked behind her heart. She stumbled forward, rasping. The fog trailed away from her in a shining snake of pale green light. She breathed in, and it grew, thickening and sparkling more.
A weight sank in her rain jacket pocket. Before she could touch it, her mom’s voice pierced the fog.
“Oneira! Silly girl. Come here. You are going to get yourself killed.”
A flashlight glare in her face. Rough hands pulling her away from the water, smoothing the damp from her cheeks.
“Come home,” her mom said, worry blanching her face. “It is dangerous tonight. Storms are coming and so is the high tide.”
Wordlessly, she let her mom lead her away. Her mom actually trembled a little as she led her back into the house.
Oneria only discovered the bottle a few days after her walk in the fog. She was organizing clothing and throwing out some clothes that were too small. She took her rain jacket off a pile on the floor and prepared to toss it in the closet. Its heaviness surprised her, as did the clink that echoed as it bounced against her hip.
She dug inside the pockets and her hands slipped on a smooth surface. She pulled out a bottle. Its glass surface was scratched, the cork almost worn away to a nub. Fancy catrved insignias adorned the blue-green surface of what seemed to be a gin bottle. Oneira’s eyes latched on to the pearlescent smoke roiling and undulating inside the bottle. As she tipped it, the smoke entity shifted too, creating patterns and shapes that were almost tangible. She brought it close to her face, and the smoke clutched at the side of the bottle, grasping at her misty breath. She gently tapped the glass and the smoke disintegrated, before coalescing again shyly.
“What are you?” she asked.
It glittered, dancing a sensuous dance that stretched from the cork to the bottom of the bottle and back again.
Oneira debated whether to open it or not. At the thought, the smoke entity recoiled.
She shook it lightly, and it drifted again toward her.
“Should I open you or not?”
Again it recoiled.
I guess not, she thought. What am I doing? What is this?
The smoke being—how could it not be sentient?—wriggled and started to glow. The glow warmed the bottle, enough that she almost dropped it. It radiated out and pulsed at her heart, the glow morphing from a pearly hue to a cascading gold. That warmth enveloped her and a force gently yanked her head up. Oneira’s eyes fell on a painting of the boardwalk downtown. The bright colors whirled and merged until she had to close her eyes to avoid dizziness. The warmth at her chest burned and she gasped, just in time to swallow some sea mist. She opened her eyes and nearly cried out. The wooden boardwalk beneath her thrummed from the pressure of the passing waves. People walked all around her, talking to each other, pointing out sights with their binoculars. Little kids thundered around, screeching and playing tag. Someone touched Oneira and she screeched as loud as the kids.
“Oneira!” her friend Jessica said, her eyes owlish behind her horn-rimmed glasses.
“Jessica,” Oneira breathed. “You’re here?”
“Of course I’m here, silly. I invited you here for the afternoon.”
Oneira stammered, but Jessica didn’t give her a chance to continue. She was off in a blur of pink cargo pants and ash-blond hair. Oneira got dragged all the way to the beach and got handed a bag.
“What are we supposed to do with this?” she asked.
“Collect seashells. Whoever gets the most exotic seashells will get a prize! Oh, and it’s timed, so hurry up!”
Oneira took a quick glance at the other people on the beach, bags in hand, looking expectantly at a man wearing a cap in such a way as to show he was the guy in charge.
“Get ready, get set, go!”
Everyone threw themselves into a flurry. So did Oneira, though her thoughts jumped erratically. What was this? How was this happening? She’d always known deep in her heart that magic was a potential reality. But this was a whole other level beyond anything she’d ever imagined.
She combed the beach to hunt for shells, bumping into other people. She expected them to yell at her, but they just worked around her, some laughing it off.
Eventually, the timer rang and everyone stopped. Someone won, not Jessica or Oneira. Jessica waved Oneira over.
“Come on. Let’s go to the ice cream place down the street.”
“I’m not hungry—” Oneira began, but again Jessica dragged her away.
They arrived at the ice cream shop and to her astonishment, Oneira saw her friends from elementary and middle school in all stages of gangliness, acne and trendy clothing. They swarmed her and she grunted as they squeezed her in a group hug.
“Oneira! Haven’t seen you in forever!” one of them said, squirrely Martin, wearing his hoop earrings as always.
“I’ve missed you all… so much,” Oneira said quietly.
They ordered their ice creams and so did she. As they slurped their ice creams, Oneira couldn’t get over the situation. To have all her friends together in one place. To be talking about the future like she wasn’t going to be stuck with her mom her whole life.
“What are you going to be in five years?” Jessica asked Oneira, crumpling her cup in one hand.
Oneira felt her world shrink and tighten. An emptiness that stretched beyond measure. She knew what she wanted to do. Be an explorer and travel the world. Go to college and use scholarships to go to new countries. But she would never be allowed to leave town. Never allowed to leave her mom.
She hadn’t realized she’d spoken out loud until Jessica replied with, “Why can’t you just leave and follow your dreams?”
Why can’t I? Oneira thought.
And gray smoke wafted in front of her, snaking to her heart and obscuring her vision. When she blinked, she was back home, sitting on her bed.
“Huh?” she asked.
She smoothed the bed sheets. They were real. But… she reached in her pocket. Some of the seashells she’d gathered with Jessica were there too.
It took a few tries for her to master the gift of the bottle. She’d noticed that if she tried too hard, the smoke entity would curl up at the bottom of the bottle and refuse to budge. If she let her thoughts wander, it would become alert, dancing up the sides of the bottle.
She had multiple adventures: she was a mermaid, swimming in the seven seas; she was a snorkeler in Australia, talking to sharks and whales; she was a lifeguard, directing people toward safety; she was a sailboat guru, weathering storms in the Atlantic; she was a denizen of Atlantis, reading magical texts before the flood came. One time she’d even talked to someone who’d looked so much like her father, she’d returned crying uncontrollably well into the evening.
Each time she was sucked out of her room and when she came back no time had passed. She started a collection of mementos in her room: shells, ropes, cloth, texts. At no point did she ever feel in true danger.
As her joy grew, so did the smoke entity’s glow. Seldom gray anymore, it sported the color of crushed up seashells and nacre. Sometimes Oneira fell asleep with it, cuddling it like she would a pet.
Her mom stomped around more and more, casting dark glances at her.
“You look way too happy to be up to anything good. Is there anything you need to tell me?”
Each time, Oneira said no.
One bright sunny afternoon, Oneira sat on her haunches and checked the new maps she’d made. The sun dappled the bottle next to her in puddles of scintillating light. Driv had made his detour into the Squayle River and lost his ship back in 1790. Rumor had it his men had thrown themselves off the ship and stolen the treasure to escape his insanity. With most of the crew having been lost, the ship having been out of food, ale, and water, and barely limping along, the remaining men had known the end was nigh. So they’d mutinied.
Oneira didn’t know if she’d have the guts to do it. Driv had been known to be a tyrant, a brute with no consideration for his crew. His temper had killed many even of his most loyal men.
She leaned back against the bedpost and added reeds around the river, more relief to the surrounding hills.
Her head drooped. A familiar warmth tingled through her and she opened her eyes to a leering face, dripping with sweat, prickly beard inches from her nose.
Oneira recoiled and shrieked.
Casting her head around wildly, she saw frightened men around her pretending to clean the ship deck, angling and shifting away so they weren’t in the way of the captain standing straight in front of her. She was tied to the mast, thick cords digging into her ribs and wrists. The captain growled at her and she snapped to attention. His ragged flowy yellow shirt, ripped up maroon breeches and cut apart leather sash clinging together by a thread, made him look simultaneously pathetic and dangerous.
“Where is it lassie?” he asked, fingering his dagger.
“Where is… what?” Oneira squeaked out.
“The treasure!” he shouted, foul spit flying in her face. “I know you helped the others escape. When I find them I will gut them and trail their organs around the ship as a reminder that no one crosses Captain Driv. But first,” he withdrew his dagger and pointed it at her, “I will start with you.”
“I don’t know where it is,” Oneira repeated, still overwhelmed by the circumstances. It was hard to enjoy the slight rocking of the boat, the smell of dirty people and residual alcohol, the presence of actual live pirates, with Captain Driv threatening to stab her.
“Liar! You know where it is. You know where they went. I will reward you if you tell me what you know.” The pirate sank back and sheathed his dagger. But he didn’t take his fingers away from that general area.
Oneira yanked at her bonds but they wouldn’t budge.
“More riches than you can imagine once we are out of this accursed river…”
Oneira shimmied around but that didn’t help either.
“I will cut off a body part one by one,” Captain Driv said calmly. He removed his dagger and placed it next to her cheek.
Oneira trembled, the blade all too close to her flesh.
“I do not know,” she whispered. The blade started cutting into her skin. It hurt, it stung, but she didn’t cry out.
“More?” he said, his wrinkles disappearing into his beard.
“No. I will not tell you anything.”
He probably was going to kill her. It didn’t matter. Even though all of this had happened in the past, integrity was everything. She knew, with her modern-day knowledge, roughly where the treasure had been stashed. But this man didn’t deserve to know. And she one hundred percent knew that if she died now, if the bottle stopped protecting her, this was the way she wanted to leave. Better to live and experience, albeit briefly, then to never have lived at all.
“Very well,” Captain Driv said. He raised the dagger to the top of her ear and started to cut.
Oneira’s guts heaved as he cut and stars danced in her vision, sickening and faint.
When she finally screamed, she screamed to the calm disarray of her bedroom. Her scream stopped and she sighed in relief. A whimper escaped her as the pain throbbed along the line of the cut. She tried to touch it and her finger sank in the beginning groove in her ear. Ribbons of pain lanced through her ear and face. Oneira reached out and scrambled at the bottle, smearing her blood all over it. Her bedroom door swung open and her mom dashed in.
“What happened to you?” she gasped, her heavily-lidded eyes as wide as they could be.
Oneira’s mom grabbed her and steered her toward the bathroom. She bent Oneira’s head down and ran cold water over her damaged ear. Oneira flinched and wiggled but her mom kept a firm grip. She dabbed at the wound and told Oneira to hold the towel in place.
“What were you doing?” her mom said, leaning against the sink.
“I’m not sure,” Oneira said.
Her mom raised an eyebrow.
“Wounds don’t happen like that randomly. You were doing something. Were you doing some kind of experiment? Some trick?”
“No! I am not sure how it happened, Mom,” Oneira said weakly, her heartbeat increasing.
Her mom’s face set and she searched in the cabinet drawers of the bathroom, behind the toilet, patted down Oneira’s pockets.
She then went into the bedroom and ruffled through stacks, in drawers, under the bed, in the closet. Oneira’s ear was still throbbing so she could only watch in mute shock. Her mom’s gaze fell on the bottle and she reached for it. A deep rumble emanated from the bottle as soon as she touched it. The little smoke entity, so often close to white these days, flashed and turned black. Oneira ventured out of the bathroom and stepped back as her mom looked up at her. A thin black thread materialized and connected her mom to the bottle. Her eyes glowed black for an instant, then the thread was gone. Oneira’s blood was smeared on her mom’s hands but she didn’t seem to notice.
“You have been up to something. I will find out what it is.”
She got up, still with bottle in hand, came in the bathroom and checked Oneira’s ear.
“It looks worse than it is. I will bandage it and keep an eye on it.”
“I am going to keep this.”
She went to leave, and Oneira called out, “No! Leave it.”
Again, that strange black glow glittered then vanished from her mom’s body.
“It is mine.”
“I’ve never seen it before.”
“It’s still mine.”
“What is yours is mine. Remember, I am your mirror,” her mom intoned, and in the bathroom mirror, veins of black writhed, ghostly. Oneira’s breath caught as she lunged and fumbled for the bottle and her mom. The smoke entity flared and morphed toward a shade of silver. It stuck to the side Oneira was closest to. But Oneira’s mom pushed her away.
It started with feeling tired whenever she got close to her mom. At the dinner table, doing chores, when her mom came in the bedroom to rant yet again how the world was getting more messed up: how people were becoming more complacent with everything; how parents let their kids just roam free doing whatever they wanted; how families were becoming less and less supportive.
Her mom never let the bottle out of her sight.
Oneira caught her mom staring at herself in the mirror, touching her face as if she’d never seen it before. She started talking to people who weren’t there.
After a week or two of strangeness, something snapped.
Oneira went to get the mail and her mom raced with almost superhuman speed to close and lock the door.
“I don’t want you going outside,” she said, jingling the keys and stuffing them in her robe.
Oneira threw up her hands. “I always get the mail. What is the deal?”
“You are not getting the mail anymore. Now or ever. You are staying here the rest of your life.”
Oneira laughed nervously. “You don’t actually mean that, Mom. I will leave home one day. Go to school, get a job, find somebody. Or get a pet and travel the world.”
Her mom stepped toward her and grabbed her face with cold rough fingers.
“You will never leave.”
The doors in the house all popped, as if they’d all been locked at once.
She dragged Oneira, still by her chin, to the mirror. The infamous mirror where Oneira always got lectured.
“I am your mirror. A reflection cannot leave its mirror. What will you do without me anyway? We need each other. We are each other. But you are the better version of me. The me without loss.”
Oneira tossed her head to dislodge her mother’s grip. She was truly acting and talking crazy. But Oneira couldn’t break free. Her mother’s grip tightened and Oneira gasped as her face shifted and roiled, like manipulated clay. Her round cheekbones morphed into her mom’s angular features. Her eyes flashed from teal to the dark brown of her mom’s. A humming black aura sizzled around her mother. This had to be the bottle’s doing. Anything magical was caused by it. Why was it making her mom so scary?
Oneira pushed her mom away, her face aching, her vision blurring and sharpening as her skin, her muscles, went back into place. She touched her cheeks wonderingly, backing away from her mom. That awful black aura vanished and her mom took a deep breath.
“Go to your room. Now.”
Oneira obeyed, afraid the black aura would come back.
She lay on her bed, faintly nauseous. What was going on? She knew her mom had issues. Always had. Her dad had been able to soften the rough edges. Oneira lacked his special touch. She knew the bottle had magical properties. But it had never transformed her into something fearsome. Why was it giving so much more power to her mother?
Oneira jumped as her mom closed her bedroom door and locked her in. Oneira surged up, banging her fist on the door.
“Unlock it! Let me out!”
She got no response.
Oneira banged on the door some more and tried picking the lock. Nothing budged. A cold sweat prickled all over her skin. The nausea increased tenfold and she breathed hard as if she’d been running.
“I have to get out,” she murmured.
She looked for other openings, anything. But her room had never had a window. There was no other door to the outside world than her bedroom door. She opened her mouth to scream again, and she yawned instead. Her body sagged, and she walked sleepily to her bed. She lay down and curled up to sleep. Quietly, a voice in the house said, “Stop fighting.”
When Oneira woke up, she tried to stretch. She tried to get her legs out of bed. She tried to sit up. Each time, she fell back violently. The lights were still on. And as she craned her head to look at herself, she jerked, a keening sound leaving her throat. Massive fuzzy black restraints wrapped around her arms, her legs, her chest. She yanked at them but nothing budged. She heaved up and down, trying to dislodge them. But could she dislodge magical restraints? They were of the same humming, threatening ilk as the aura that had surrounded her mom earlier.
She wriggled from side to side trying to slide her way out. It didn’t work either. Sweating profusely now, her heart thumping so loud her head spun, she twisted around desperately. A heady sensation wrapped around her, forcing her eyes to close.
Stop fighting, a familiar voice said.
Oneira wanted with all her heart to listen to it. To just go to sleep and stop fighting. After all, what would fighting against her mom do? Her mom meant her no harm.
No! Her eyes popped open. No. This wasn’t how this was meant to be.
She strained, her joints screeching in protest. She had to get out. Oneira thought of her dad, of her newfound confidence, of the precious moments given to her by the bottle, of time spent with her friends. That was life how it was supposed to be, meant to be enjoyed, in freedom, in security.
The black vines of horror withdrew a little, wisping away in swirls of smoke. The black tint ebbed into a gray hue. Oneira concentrated harder, slipping free some of her newly loosened limbs. She thought of the feeling of ocean spray on her lips as she fished with her dad; throwing wet sand at her friends then rolling around in the surf; modelling for her mom with costumes made of seashells and fishing nets. Memories of simpler times, before happiness became a shadow of a dream.
The restraints on her shimmered away, smoke lightening to a white color, like it had when it was still in the bottle, in Oneira’s possession. Oneira vaulted off the bed and the smoke wrapped around her hand. She shoved the door open and tumbled straight into her mom. The smoke left her, Oneira felt it leave her as if it were yanked from her navel and heart, ripping through her muscles and flesh. The smoke slammed into her mom and she smiled at Oneira, the smoke black again, filling her eyes and mouth with gags of dark thoughts.
Oneira stumbled back, horror dawning on her.
“What did you do? You released it, didn’t you?”
Her mom shrugged.
“The bottle broke, daughter. Whatever was in there is mine now. As are you. You really think you can resist me? I am your flesh and blood. I am your mirror…”
Oneira felt that rapey touch start to mold her face again. She whacked at it and bolted around her mom.
“I am not your mirror. I will never be your mirror, because I am my own person. Being your daughter doesn’t make me your slave, or your puppet,” Oneira spat.
The door leading to the beach. Where was it? Before her eyes, the hallway and rooms flexed and shifted as if they were melting into different things altogether. The paintings on the wall bled into each other, the stones in the wall drooped like wilting funeral flowers, the floors slid in a Machiavellian dance. Oneira planted her feet, closing her eyes to withstand the blurring of reality. She snuck an eye open and caught her mom with a frown of concentration, black wreathed around her entire body. The walls bent and groaned, hands forming to grab at Oneira. Every trinket, every knickknack from past travels, items her dad had brought back, oscillated on their tables, shifting and lengthening into weapons, aiming at Oneira.
None of this was right. This would never happen. Nothing of her dad’s would ever harm her. Her own home would never harm her. Everything her mom touched, she infected with her fears, her traumas, her grief, her vindictiveness. All her life, her mom had bent her reality. It had gotten worse after her father was lost at sea. Oneira had one thing, and it was her reality. Her mom had no right to take it away.
“No,” Oneira stated, and the house stopped buckling and twisting. “No. Not again, not this way.”
Her mom let out a snarl and Oneira ran blindly to the door, yanked it open and dashed out, running… running where? Her mom knew her hiding places. She knew her mom would hunt for her. Her tenaciousness was what had helped her survive the death of her husband, her sisters, her own father. Her mom had been assaulted, beaten, dealt with leukemia as a child. Life had taken her mom, ground her up and spit her out as a soul-wizened warrior. But it had also sapped her compassion, her trust, her affection. All she knew now was possession. After all, she owned Oneira. Had spent days in labor, she never failed to remind her.
Oneira ran toward the ocean, not sure what she was doing. A storm was brewing, the clouds and the waves gnashing against each other in palettes of black and gray. In a moment of panic, Oneira considered throwing herself in the ocean. Only then perhaps might she be free.
She squared her shoulders. That was the coward’s way out. Her dad had brought her up better than this. Hell, her mom had taught her better than this, when her warped side hadn’t yet taken over, before her father’s death.
Veins of ink bled through the sand, snaking toward her. Her mom was here.
Oneira turned to face her mom. The black haze surrounded her, as a shroud, scintillating with enmity.
“You can’t run away, Oneira. You can’t leave the family. Family is forever.”
Oneira squeezed her hands over her ears in pain. Wise advice corrupted by her mom’s possessiveness… She couldn’t stand it anymore.
“Stop talking about family like you know what it means!” Oneira shouted, her hair a copper tempest in the biting wind.
“Everything I’ve ever loved leaves me!” her mom bellowed, her face a mask of pain. “My sisters. My father. Your father of course. You want to leave me too. I can see it in your eyes.” For a moment, the ravages of hurt streaked across her mom’s face, as lines of sorrow and grief. Then a rictus deformed it, as the black smoke swirled through her. “I will never let you leave! You are my precious daughter, my life. I need you. Your life is mine to do as I wish. I will make you see that. Come here, honey,” she said sweetly, and Oneira backed into the surf, the waves sticking her sodden skirt to her trembling legs.
As Oneira observed the black smoke, how it pullulated in her mom like a disease, she knew she would suffer the same fate. Her mom had ingested the smoke entity and turned it into something formidable, threatening. She would keep Oneira and turn her into a dutiful pet, a living museum relic confined to the home until her death. Or worse. Corrupt her to see the world the same way she did: a personal faceless enemy that pierced the fake bubble of a haven she’d created out of lies and isolation.
“I will not,” Oneira whispered so softly she was sure the wind, the crashing waves had masked her voice. Her mom stiffened and she spread her hands. The black smoke reared like a cobra and darted at Oneira. She flung herself to the ground and the tendril smacked into the wet sand, making a thunderous noise. It reared again and struck. Oneira just caught it with a hand. It vibrated against her, trying to wrap around her arm. She held firm and squeezed.
“All my life you made me feel like I was an extension of you. That I had no free will. That stops now. You are not my mirror. You never were. You are so broken you try to grab everyone else’s identity. Keep them all for yourself.”
Oneira had flashes of her mom screaming at her dad, trying to hold him back as he left, disgusted with her pleas to stay despite the drama she’d fabricated and lied about.
Terminating lifelong friendships in a single phone call if her mom’s friend didn’t agree with her. Yet stalking them afterward and spreading rumors so they’d reach back out to her.
Her mom adopting new personas after watching television shows and tormenting Oneira as a child for not responding to her sudden mood swings.
The smoke quaked in her hand.
“You never let go of your grief and rage,” Oneira said wonderingly.
She tugged on the smoke, and it swirled out of her mom. Her mom screamed, and tugged back. Oneira arched her back and planted her feet. She tugged and tugged, straining, panting, the rocky sand digging in her heels, the sea pushing back against her. Rain started pouring, blinding her vision. Her hands were in agony, her fingers sore, lancing with pain. She’d had practice when she was younger, with her friends, playing tug of war. She was strong. She could do this, though her mom seemed a titan of confidence and fury. That banshee scream continued, but Oneira chose to focus on the tense lullaby of the surf. She pulled and pulled, dragging more of that dark matter out of her mom. Her mom cursed and raved incomprehensibly, then started pleading. Oneira kept pulling. The smoke finally leeched out completely, as a massive black spider with legs so long it stood as tall as a Newfoundland. Oneira screamed once, her arachnophobia in full force, and she tugged the spider by one of its legs. She flinched and yanked it with all her might into the ocean.
“Go away,” she shouted, as it scuttled into the ocean and sank.
She looked at her mom, who’d crumpled to her knees, staring with dead eyes at the ocean.
She is just a husk of a human being, Oneira thought. Without her rage she is nothing.
What am I?
I am fear, I am joy, I am hope and confusion and excitement. And sorrow. As it should be.
I will not be like her, Oneira concluded.
She would not become what her mother had become. She was stronger than she thought. Everyone had darkness inside of them. The trick was to remember to triumph over it. She had to. Because the alternative was to drown.
Black smoke exploded from the surf, that spider turning gray, then white, then a nacre color as it spread like a puddle in the waves. It became ripples of light, light so bright it was like the reflection of the moon. The light shimmered and jittered, then bounced into the sky as a merry entity, soaring in the clouds, lining them with silver and white sparkles. It came down and smashed into Oneira, who fell on the sand, winded, holding her stomach. It writhed around her, an angelic aura buzzing with energy. It seemed to want something. Something more.
Oneira crawled to her mom despite the pain and cradled her to her chest awkwardly. Her mom let herself be handled, wordlessly, her limbs limp.
“Heal,” Oneira cried, tears slowly leaking out. The white entity sprung from her and pulsed at her mom’s head. It did not change color. Finally it slunk away and evaporated. Her mom collapsed like a rag doll, her face blank. Oneira hugged her, rocking back and forth, like the waves, like the lament in her heart.
“Heal,” she sobbed, unaware that the smoke had turned around and sunk into her from behind, as a gray being rippling, undulating with specks of pure white light.