Chapter 1 of Mind Games for your reading pleasure. I think this is the best book I’ve ever written.
The world outside the car windows whooshed by in an ever changing mishmash of color and scenery so by the time we left the parking lot of the mental hospital, the seasons had changed from summer to winter and back again. It was almost like watching my life pass before my eyes in the space of a moment. I shivered, hugging myself in the back of my parents’ old tan station wagon even though it was so warm inside the car, I was sweating.
My father turned around in the front passenger seat and smiled at me, lips stretching the acne scars on his face wide. His eyes darted from me to the back window where Mercer & Mercer slowly faded into the distance so quickly I almost didn’t catch it. Almost.
“Are you excited to finally be heading home, Lillim?” he asked, and the joy in his voice made my heart ache. Why? Because this couldn’t be real. Something was going on, only I didn’t know what. For the better part of six months, I’d been locked up in that mental hospital, and only after forcing myself to pretend everything I’d known was a lie, they’d let my parents take me away from their too bright walls and patronizing voices. Provided, of course, I kept taking my medication and stopped claiming my friends were werewolves.
Yup, that’s right. I said parents plural because even though my mother had been stabbed to death, she was somehow in perfect health and driving our car over the bumpy road. It was unnerving because I could still remember what her face looked like in death, all slack-jawed and empty. A shudder ran through my body as my father stared at me like it’d never happened, like she’d never died and everything was perfectly normal. I almost wanted to believe it wasn’t true. It would be easier if I did.
But I couldn’t.
“Yeah.” I forced myself to smile, not sure if it reached my eyes or not. I hadn’t ever learned to lie very well with my eyes, so I turned my head to avoid further scrutiny and stared at the trees flashing by outside as we drove along. Their leaves were an assortment of yellows and orange, and in the bright light of the morning, the dew on them glittered, beckoning for me to believe they too were real. God, how I wished that was true. Why couldn’t it be true?
“Cupcake, is everything okay?” my father, Sabastin Callina asked. His gaze bored into me, searing into my flesh like a high intensity laser. I was reasonably sure he couldn’t read my thoughts, but it didn’t stop him from trying to see into the inner workings of my brain and suss them out.
“Of course! I’m going home.” I turned back in my seat, my hands twisting my beige seatbelt. “I’m just a little tired.”
“Did you not sleep well?” my mother, Diana Cortez asked, not taking her eyes from the road as she drove our little car. Her hands were locked at ten and two on the wheel. I’d remembered hearing you weren’t supposed to drive with your hands in those positions anymore, but old habits die hard, I guess. Then again, I’d never actually driven a car before…
“Not really,” I said because that at least was true. My dreams had kept me up all night. Every single time I closed my eyes a horrible feeling would crawl over my skin like an icy spider, chilling me to the core. When my eyes were shut, the darkness would overwhelm me. I’d start to see and hear things I couldn’t explain. I didn’t know what the dreams meant, but they didn’t seem good. “Had some bad dreams.”
“I’m sorry, honey,” my mother said, and the concern in her voice was so foreign to my ears, it made me shiver again. In life, my mom had been hard as nails and twice as tough. Hell, I remembered, actually remembered, her teaching me to swim in a lake filled with sea monsters. Who throws their young daughter into a lake with a leviathan in it? Diana Cortez. If there was one thing she didn’t do, it was empathize. “We can get you a dreamcatcher if you like. You know, to catch all the bad dreams before they enter your head?”
“S’okay,” I replied, swallowing hard. “I’m sure once we get home, everything will be fine.”
“About that…” my father said, still turned in his seat to look at me. His eyes traced over my face, taking in my every detail as though he was storing it for later. “Your mother and I thought,” he glanced at my mother who kept her eyes on the road like a good little driver, “well, we thought, maybe you’d want to go pick out some furniture for your room. Or some decorations.” I must have looked at him strangely because he got a sort of scared gleam in his eyes. “Or not, dear, whatever you want.”
He said those last words like he thought I was a china doll and would shatter at the slightest provocation. I wouldn’t, but they still thought I was crazy, still worried their little girl hadn’t actually woken up from the delusions that had held her captive for the last couple years. It wasn’t their fault really, since they were figments of my imagination, but the look on his face made me feel bad.
“That would be fun,” I said, dropping my hands into my lap so I wouldn’t keep fidgeting with the seatbelt. “I can barely even remember what my room looked like before anyway.”
“See, I told you she wouldn’t want those boy band posters anymore. We should have taken our chance to get rid of them,” my mother said with a laugh. “Now they’ll be up on the walls forever.”
My father frowned. “I just wanted everything to be like how it was when she left,” he muttered, turning back in his seat and huffed against the seat like a disgruntled toddler. “Is that so much to ask?”
“I know, sweetie,” she said, glancing up at the rearview mirror and winking at me. “I know.”
My heart clenched in my chest as I looked away from them before I could cry. Even though I knew they weren’t real, I still felt bad for what I’d put them through. It was crazy because I knew they were just hallucinations. I wasn’t just some normal girl after all. I was Lillim Callina, Hyas Tyee of the Dioscuri, scourge of the underworld, slayer of dragons, killer of gods. I was not some crazy girl trapped in a mental hospital. At least, I really hoped I wasn’t.
If I was, well, I didn’t think I’d be able to forgive myself for what I’d put them through. That said, it was getting harder to hang onto the truth by the moment. Every day stretched into an impossible infinity of time that made me wary and skeptical of everything in my past.
What if the doctors were right? What if I’d just had a mental breakdown when the company running the obscure online video game I’d been playing shut down their servers? I liked to think I was beyond losing my mind over something like that, but the facts just kept piling up. Like the picture my mother had shown me when my guild had claimed the world’s first kill of a dragon named Valen. It wasn’t that impressive really because apparently only five hundred or so people even played the damned game.
I closed my eyes, picturing the screenshot in my mind. My avatar stood in the center, next to the corpse of a giant lobster-esque dragon, with her name plate clearly displayed over her head. Dirge Meilan.
I opened my eyes and stared at the back of my father’s head. What if I was wrong? What if that was why, despite having secretly stopped taking my medication, I still hadn’t regained my magic? What if I really was crazy? What if this was real?
What if I wasn’t special?
“Who’s ready for lunch?” my mother said, snapping me out of my reverie as she pulled our car in front of a yellow liquor store with a line stretched out the front door. Black wrought-iron tables stood in the parking lot, some empty, others filled with people munching on chips and salsa.
“You’ve got to be kidding me…” I mumbled as my father opened his door and came around to let me out.
“Fish tacos are still your favorite, right?” he asked after pulling the door open and offering me his hand.
“Yes,” I replied as my mother stretched next to the driver’s side of the car before grinning at me.
“Good. I’m starved,” she said, glancing at my father as she moved towards an empty table. “Come sit with me while your father gets our food.” She patted the chair next to her. “I know the doctors told me not to say this, but I’m glad you’re back, Lillim. I missed you.”
Tears filled my eyes as my father led me toward her by the hand. “I missed you too, Mom.” And the sad thing was, even though she was a figment of my imagination and I was caught up in an imaginary dream world, I sort of hoped everyone was right, and I was insane. Otherwise… otherwise she was dead. I really didn’t want that to be true. If it came down to a choice between having my mother back and losing my magic, well, my magic could just stay gone.
She reached out, took my hands in hers, and squeezed as I sat down. Her warmth made my flesh tingle as she stared into my eyes, her own glistening with unshed tears. Then she wrapped me in a hug, pulling me against her body. “I love you, Lillim. Please don’t leave me ever again.”
“Okay, Mom,” I replied because in that moment, I really didn’t want her to be fake. No matter how I remembered her raising me, in that moment, in that stupid, traitorous moment, everything in me hoped she was real.