The tentacles are trying to get in through my bedroom windows again. Their shadows wriggle behind the net curtain. The occasional slapping sound reminds me they’re still there when I hide under the duvet. I think they’re knocking—trying to attract my attention. But without any bones that wet splat is the best they can manage. I wonder what a monster could want with a kid like me, but my train of thought is almost more terrible than the tentacles.
I screw my eyes shut and will them to go away. There’s a long slurping and a rattle of glass as a sucker attaches by accident then pulls itself free. I wish our landlord had installed the double-glazing he promised when we moved in two years ago, or that it wasn’t just us two in the flat. I’m only a kid and Mum is…Mum. What can either of us do about it? Why’re they here, tapping on our window on the third floor, anyway? I shake my head, as if I can shake away the thought of it. There’s a lull in the knocking, and I tell myself that it’s my willpower that sent them away, but I’m not fooled by the lie.
Last time they came, I told Mum. That was the third time I’d noticed them. It took me ages to build up the courage to slide out of my bed and knock on her bedroom door. To point out the shadows waving at us through the backlit curtain. To make the whole thing real by speaking it out loud. I braced for her mocking me, but she didn’t. I wish she had. She just blew smoke and told me to go to bed. I thought then that she didn’t believe me and that had been hard. But now, thinking back on it, I realise that she did, and that’s even harder.
And so I don’t run to tell her. The TV’s loud through my bedroom wall, and I probably won’t be able to get to sleep anyway. She’s watching a late-night chat-show, and all I can make out is swearing, followed by Mum’s drunken cackle. She only laughs like that at someone worse off than her. I don’t hear it often.
But then there’s a smashing in the kitchen and I go rigid. The TV’s now talking to itself and the tentacles are gone from my window. If anything, that’s worse. My mind jumps to a conclusion and I force myself out of bed to investigate.
I shuffle across the room, wrapping my duvet around my shoulders, the world’s most pathetic armour. It’s the same set I’ve had since I was five, with the Happy Farmyard Friends on. I was so excited when Mum bought it, and she beamed down at my happy face. Last year she promised me a more grown-up one for Christmas. And again for my birthday a couple of months ago. I picture that five-year-old and her smiling mother until a clattering from the kitchen and footsteps in the hall yank me back into the present.
The bulk of the duvet wedges me in the doorway. There’s Mum in the hall, fag hanging off her lip and a can of lager in one hand. In the other, she’s clutching a baseball bat. She looks ridiculous. The thought of either of us playing any kind of sport is a joke.
“Go back to bed, Marina,” she slurs, and stumbles towards the kitchen.
The door’s ajar and the only light comes from a street lamp shining in through the window. It’s dark, but shadows meander all over the beige lino inside. Mum pulls the door closed with a click. It has a knob rather than a handle. Landlord was supposed to replace those too, but I’m glad he hasn’t bothered.
We stand staring at the shut door for a while. Every now and then there’s a smash, followed by the tinkling of something trailing through shards of broken crockery. I tell myself that if the tentacles wanted or were able to get out, they would’ve by now. Another lie I don’t believe.
After a while, Mum turns round. The light that makes it in through my bedroom window catches on the silver scar running from her temple down to her jaw. The fag’s burned down to a stub at the end of a cylinder of ash. It’s impressive the whole thing hasn’t crumbled yet. Any moment now it will, and Mum will swear about it ruining her sweatshirt, already singed in a dozen places.
“What’re you doing there?” she says, as though I’m the most surprising thing in the flat. “Thought I told you to go back to bed?”
“Is it safe?” I ask. Then, once the floodgate’s open, the questions rush out. “What was that? What’s it doing here? What does it want? Shouldn’t we do something?”
“Buggered if I know,” she shrugs.
“But…it was real? I mean, I didn’t imagine it?”
“Just go to sleep, girl. It’ll be gone in the morning.”
“How do you know that?” I narrow my eyes at her. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you freaking out about this? Mum, this isn’t normal!”
She snorts. It might be a laugh. The column of ash collapses, and she curses flamboyantly as she brushes it off herself. Then she stubs the butt out on the wall and shuffles back to the TV, which is still flickering and shouting to itself in the dark. She closes her bedroom door, sealing herself off from the rest of the universe. I stare at the yellowing paintwork, wishing she would tell me what’s going on, but at the same time wishing it wasn’t going on at all.
The clattering, squishing tentacle sounds are still coming from inside the kitchen. I reverse into my room and close the door, moving my bedside table in front of it, just in case. Then I lie on the mattress, still wrapped in my duvet like a pod. I can’t hear the kitchen over the TV and Mum laughing that horrible laugh, but the sound rings round my skull. I know it’s still there, whatever it is, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
The sunlight glows red inside my eyelids, warming my face. I must’ve fallen asleep. The world is soft and fuzzy, and so’s my memory. I hatch out of my duvet egg and haul the bedside table away from the door to open it. The kitchen is hazy with smoke. Mum’s knelt beside the freezer, rifling around for something. I go to the bathroom.
After I’m done, I check the kitchen. Mum’s leaning against the counter-top with a cigarette and a stale doughnut she salvaged from work yesterday. The freezer’s shut and the floor’s clear. She’s swept the wreckage into a mound under the little folding table and duct-taped corrugated card over the broken windowpane. I head to the kettle and boil it.
“Could you make us a cuppa while you’re at it? There’s a good girl,” Mum says, as though last night never happened. She crams the last of the doughnut into her mouth and sugar sticks to her red lips like moths on flypaper.
“Last night…” I start, staring at the cardboard patch, but there aren’t any words big enough to contain all I want to say.
“Leave it, Marina. You know I’m not going to talk about it. And help yourself to doughnuts.” She strides out of the room wreathed in fumes.
I push down my seething frustration and make two teas in the cleanest mugs I find. My brain’s buzzing with questions that no one will answer. Mum only ever brushes them aside and I’d lose the precarious friendships I’ve made at school if I started talking about tentacle monsters. The rest of our family is yet another unanswered question. It’s just me and Mum, two islands in an ocean of chaos. I take the last doughnut and my tea to my room and get ready for school.
When I come back to the kitchen, the only sign of Mum is her mug, teabag abandoned at the bottom like a shopping trolley in a pond, and a wisp of smoke coiling from the ashtray. I check the bread bin to make myself a packed lunch but the last of the loaf is sprouting turquoise spots. The fridge isn’t any better. Mum must’ve been checking on a stash of something good in the freezer. I open the door and root around, hoping to find a secret supply of sausage rolls.
I’m fishing around behind the frozen peas and boxes of unidentifiable leftovers when my fingers brush against something smooth and soft. I empty the compartment, piling icy packages round my knees, until I’ve made a big enough gap to extract the mystery item.
It’s a book.
Under a glittering layer of frost, a thick, black-leathered tome rests in my hands. Alien letters embossed in gold on the front make my eyes water if I look at them too long. My hands tremble, and not just from the cold. When I flick through the pages, my stomach contorts and my ears throb with my hammering pulse. The words are in English, I think, but my eyes glide over them without absorbing any, like a sheen of oil. The middle pages flop open to reveal a set of black and white lithographs.
They’re old and dark. The caption underneath reads: “The Elder Gods.” I lean closer and try to make out what they’re supposed to be. A jungle full of creepers or the overgrown ruins of a city perhaps? I lift the glossy page up to my face. Or maybe waves, as tall as skyscrapers? Beneath them, almost moving under all that cross-hatching, is something tentacular. I jerk my head back, as though to stop myself diving into that inky sea. Then, heart pounding, I bury the book away again behind softening bags of veg.
I drop the carrier bag full of broken plates and glass into the bin in the alley behind the flat on my way to the bus stop. We’re only a couple of streets in from the docks, and the air always smells of fish. You can just glimpse the sea from Mum’s bedroom window, but down here all you get is the stench and the noise of seagulls. The bus stop’s a five-minute walk and the bus is due in ten, so I poke round the alley a bit for clues that might explain what the tentacles were up to. Nothing.
The bus is full of people on their way to work and elderly couples doing whatever elderly people get up early on a weekday to do. Everything is so normal I can barely stand it. All these people living their bland lives while my mind bulges with questions. Those pictures rise and fall in my memory, making me nauseous. And even though it makes me queasy, I can’t shake them out of my imagination, like they’re hooked in.
That book must be Mum’s. How else could it have got into our freezer? So she must know what that monster is. Maybe she even knows why it’s tapping on my window. She’s a dragon hoarding a great trove of answers. The old lady next to me keeps shooting me Looks so I try to focus on something else and stop grinding my teeth, but I keep drifting back. I can’t decide whether it’s reassuring that I didn’t imagine the whole thing or not. I can’t work out what’s making me more furious, the monster or Mum.
At school I keep my head down, pretend everything’s normal, and avoid conflict. That could be my motto. I try to concentrate on my exercise book, but the lines wriggle hypnotically. That evening, too exhausted to hold it in any longer, I avoid Mum after she gets in from work. If I don’t see her, she can’t lie to me and I won’t explode in rage. I add the book to the bonfire of unsolved mysteries at the back of my mind and try to ignore it looming there, begging for a spark.
Mum’s got two slices of quiche, a bag of wilted salad, and some jacket potatoes that’ve been kept warm for the last 24 hours wrapped in foil. We microwave what we want on individual plates in silence and then take our meals to eat separately in our rooms. I have chemistry to do for tomorrow. Mum has the second part of a murder mystery to watch. There’s a lot of screaming, but at least she isn’t laughing tonight.
Around ten, the tentacles come back. I pretend I don’t notice, as if I can carry on working while they’re there, slurping around outside. I could hand in the assignment a day late. I never ask for extensions, so Dr. Plough would probably cut me some slack. I try to focus on the molecular models of hydrocarbons in the textbook and not the damp patting at the glass.
But then I jump at the sudden ripping, screeching, tearing sound on the other side of the wall, and I think with a sinking dread of the kitchen window. By the time I’m in the hallway, Mum’s already there with her fag in her mouth and her baseball bat in her fist. The kitchen door’s wide open and we’ve left the light on. The tentacles writhe in through the broken glass, over the sink and out across the floor, dark and oozing and rough. And real. Horrifyingly, unquestionably real. I open my mouth, expecting to scream. Instead, a strangling noise comes out and I collapse sideways into the wall and slide down onto the carpet.
There are four tentacles. One has massive hooks at the end and has snagged on a cupboard. It’s trying to drag itself free, splitting the plastic off the plywood. The others grope around as though they’re looking for something. Mum steps in quick, bat raised, and slams the door before they get any closer. She turns to me and makes eye contact. There’s no shrugging this off. I’d challenge her if I had a voice, but it seems to’ve done a runner. I don’t blame it. I’d scarper too if my legs hadn’t turned to jelly.
“Well,” Mum says. “Seems you and I need to have a little chat.” She swings the bat to rest on her shoulder as though she’s been fighting zombies and leads me into her room. I struggle to my feet and follow.
I’m not usually allowed in here. Everything’s stained a dirty yellow. She switches off the TV with a remote she digs out from under a heap of underwear and moves her plate of leftover dinner off the bed to make space for me.
“Mum, what’s going on?” I ask.
She sighs theatrically and lights a fag from the butt of the previous one.
“Well, kid. I guess it’s time we had ‘the talk.’”
I scoot onto the bed and fold my legs underneath myself. At the other end of the hall, something pounds at the door with a squelching effect. Mum’s already halfway down the cigarette, sucking at it like a nicotine vampire.
“What d’you know about the Elder Gods?” she asks.
“A bit,” I say, thinking of that book in the freezer and that picture trying to escape from the page. “That they’re best left alone.”
She barks a laugh. “Probably, yeah. Ever wondered what it would be like to meet one? Up close and personal?”
I don’t enjoy lying, but every now and then one sort of slips out. It tastes bitter in my mouth. But she doesn’t seem to notice and concentrates on stubbing out her fag. She doesn’t light another. Her stained fingers twine together in her lap.
“I did. I wasn’t much older than you. Had a boyfriend, twenty, and so smooth. Introduced me to this club, he called it. Scared the shit out of me, but I kept going back. Did chanting and that. Candles. Chalk circles on the floor. Once someone had a bottle of blood. Never asked where it came from.”
“You were in a cult?” I ask. I try to sound shocked, but I’m not. If anything, I’m impressed, but I don’t want her to know that. No kid should ever let their parent know that they’ve impressed them.
“Sure, I guess. It was all a laugh to them, at the beginning. I was freaked out, but I guess that was part of the game. But then on the night with the blood…”
“The tentacles. You summoned them?”
“Arms,” she says, a far-away look in her eyes.
“Only the two with hooks are tentacles. The others are arms.”
She sounds almost wistful as she gazes out the window, to where the sea waits in the darkness.
“What happened?” I ask, eagerness creeping into my voice, grasping greedily for information.
“He ate Ricky. And Georgina, that bitch. But then it wasn’t creepy anymore. It was real. I came back the next night, alone, and did the ritual just the same. And I kept coming back every night for years. Until thirteen years ago.”
Thirteen years. She had been pregnant with me. Something in me softens towards her as I study her craggy face.
The wet beating is suddenly replaced by a tearing, smashing thud. We both look down the hall. The hollow plywood has hooked spikes poking through in places now. The whole door shudders as the tentacle tries to pull itself free, but it’s caught.
“But if you stopped summoning it, why did it start showing up a couple of months ago?” I ask.
Mum turns to me, eyes intense, mouth pinched. “You came of age,” she says.
Fear washes over me again, cold and sickening. The tentacles – no, arms – are here for me?
“Why?” My voice is very small.
There’s a thunderous cracking as the hooks tear themselves free. Now there’s a massive hole in the wood and arms snake their way out. Mum pushes the bedroom door closed without getting up.
“He wants you,” she says.
“But why?” I ask again, voice now shrill. My hands are trembling, and I push them inside the sleeves of my school jumper.
“Because you’re his.”
There’s nothing I can say to that. I realise my mouth’s hanging open but don’t bother to shut it. The silence is broken by a thud on the other side of the partition wall. That thing is poking around in my room.
“No,” I say at last.
“Don’t blame you. Wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t been there. But trust me, kid, you’re his as much as mine.” She laughs, one sharp squawk. “Hey, you’ve been wanting answers. This is why I never gave you any.”
I’d feel sick if I had that kind of connection to my body, but I seem to be drifting away. Everything feels so small and insignificant all of a sudden.
“Hey, Marina! Stay with me, girl!” Mum shakes me, and I snap back into the room. “Don’t you go drifting off like that. No telling where you might wind up. Or when.”
The answers fray at the ends into a thousand smaller questions. Where do I even start? I rub my eyes with my palms but that doesn’t help.
“Why?” I ask for a third time. “Mum, I don’t understand, what are you telling me? That I’m half monster? What does it want with me? Why didn’t you say anything? How did…it…happen?” Ah, I’m back again. I almost retch at that last thought.
The thumping around in my room has stopped and started up again on the other side, in the bathroom. There’s a splash as one arm investigates the toilet and a ripping as the shower curtain gets tangled with another. Mum sighs and reaches for her can. She takes a swig.
“You know…” She gesticulates with her hands.
“Mum!” I shriek, blood throbbing in my cheeks.
Mum laughs her extra dirty laugh, deep in her throat. But then she smiles, and her eyes drift out to sea again.
“He wasn’t always like this. When we first met he made me feel…special. Like I was the only person in the universe. And he was powerful, more powerful than anyone I’d ever known. I got swept up in the whole thing. And no, he was never caring or gentle.” She brushes the scar on her face. “But I knew I meant something to him. I was devoted to that bastard and he favoured me. That was enough. Before you.
“I knew you’d change that. He wouldn’t need me anymore and if he took you, you’d have nobody to look after you. God knows he wouldn’t. So I ran. Ran inland.
“D’you remember that little bungalow by the lake? No, you’d only’ve been three when we moved away. Lived in a block of flats overlooking a river. And then that mouldy old shack surrounded by marshland, you must remember that one.”
I did. Mum making me paper boats to float on the river. Collecting frogspawn from that bog. And Mum growing more and more insular, surrounding herself with smoke and booze. And so much water. No matter how hard she’d tried to tear herself away, she’d never quite managed.
“And then we came here when you were ten. Nice school, steady job. Figured he’d given up on you, but that just goes to show how stupid your mum is, hey. And now he’s back. For you.”
Bitterness. How can she be bitter that the monster’s after me, not her? The bubble of anger inflating in my chest starts to push up my throat. The bathroom’s gone silent. There’s a slippery sound creeping up the bedroom door, and the light coming in the cracks at the edges is blocked out in places. Mum reaches for the baseball bat, propped up against the edge of the bed, and downs the rest of the lager.
“Right. Let’s sort this out, once and for all.”
The bubble pops before I have a chance to unleash it on her.
“What?” I ask, but she’s reaching for the door knob. I scream “No!” at her, but she’s already opening it.
It’s not just tentacles anymore, or arms even. The hallway is crammed full of squishy grey-green blubber and pale suckers. And right in the middle is a single massive eye, as tall as I am.
“Alright, Your Majesty?” Mum says, swinging the bat. “Long time no see. You’re looking well.”
There’s a sucking, squelching, gurgling sound.
“No thanks to you, love,” she replies.
The monster says something again. If I concentrate, I can almost understand. The meaning goes straight into my brain without the need for electrical signals or interpretation. But I’m not thinking about it. My brain has more or less switched off as I stare into that eye.
“No. You can’t have her,” Mum says. She glances at me over her shoulder, then pokes me with a red fingernail. “Hey. Stay with us, kid.”
A slippery arm winds across the carpet and rises, coming at me. I can’t remember how to move my legs all of a sudden. Mum smacks it hard with the bat, and it recoils sharply.
“I said ‘no,’” she says in a voice I know too well.
“Mum,” I croak. “What’re you doing? You can’t take on an Elder God with a baseball bat.”
It’s toying with her. I know it is. And her bravado is a lie she tells the world to protect her ego. An armour that is going to drag her down and get her killed.
“Sure I can. See?” And she clouts another arm as it crawls through the doorway.
“But we can’t stand against that!”
“I can for a while. And you can climb down the fire escape.”
And the terror I felt a second ago shrinks away as anger rushes over me again. But now I’m angry with everything. With Mum, for all the lies. With the monster for existing. With Mum for deciding to sacrifice herself and the monster for letting her think it’ll work. And with myself for just standing there…The rage rises up inside my mouth, over my tongue, past my teeth. I open my lips and out it comes.
“No,” I say. My voice sounds different; feels different. As though it’s vibrating the airwaves in more than one dimension. The eye is staring into me and I can feel its curiosity; its anticipation. Mum stands frozen, like time’s stopped. And I know, in that instant, that her entire story was true, is true, will be true. I am a child of the Elder God.
“Move,” I command my mother, and she levitates a couple of inches, mouth open in an “O” of surprise, and slides through the air further into the bedroom. I step forwards. I realise, in a detached kind of way, that I’m not even angry anymore. I simply am.
“You’re not needed here. Or wanted,” I tell the god.
You are needed, child. And wanted, he tells my brain.
I want it to be true. I imagine myself living as a goddess, having and doing and being whatever I want. That vast, unblinking eye bores into me. The taste of power is tempting. But then I think of Mum and what exposure to that power did to her and the hunger in me dies. That’s not who I am. I can see who I am clearly for the first time: powerful, apparently, but not defined by it.
“No. You’ve had thirteen years to find me. You don’t want me. You only want to control me.”
I can taste the truth of the words, sweeter than syrup. I know, as no mortal can know, what the future could hold. The strands of it stretch out into millions upon millions of minutely different possibilities. In some, I go with him, either peacefully or struggling or unconscious. And in some I stay, either resentful or powerful or unchanged. But there is one. A bright nugget of potential glistening in the estuary of time. This is the future I want. I reach for it.
You can have everything, the voice in my mind promises. Everything your mother could never give you. You will be a queen, ruling the universes at my side, my beloved daughter…
“I said ‘no,’” I say, my voice cool and flat. “I have all that already. My mother loves me and gives me everything I could ever need. I never needed or wanted a father. You will leave us alone.”
And there it is. My humanity manifesting alongside my divinity, something he could never do. A lie, from the mouth of a god.
The eye presses forward on a rippling mat of limbs. The hooked tentacles rise and advance. I can feel him doing something to the universe around me. He’s changing the world into one where I don’t struggle with him, where no attachment to Mum has a hold on me. One of those channels in the river of time that feed into an ocean of darkness.
But I know something that he doesn’t. He’s trying to switch me off a path where I feel affection for Mum, not knowing that his starting point is wrong. I smirk at him and look for that future I want again. The monster has no clue how to deal with untruth, like oil separating from water. But my life is nothing if not an agitation, and I’m an emulsion of god and mortal. I find that twinkle of promise and carve the fiction of a happy life into the darkness. Then I force myself and Mum and the monster and the universe around us along the roughly-hewn channel of narrative.
There’s a loud “pop” in my ears, as though I’m coming up from underwater. I stumble forward a step, disoriented. The universe rearranges itself. The wallpaper stops peeling and brightens as the smoke stains are erased from existence. There is a rushing of air, as the stink of cigarettes and booze is flushed out to make way for the scent of home-cooked meals and fabric softener. I am in a time and a place that hadn’t existed before I imagined it and called it into being. A world where my father never bothered to come back and Mum never wanted him to.
And he withdraws, like he’s pulled into a vacuum, sucked out through the smashed kitchen window in a flurry of flailing appendages. Into a reality where we weren’t worth the effort of pursuing. Mum and I go over to look and every pane of glass has smashed. But there’s no sign of him outside.
“We won’t be seeing him again,” I say, and it’s true. I can feel it coiling out from me, snagging on the past and the future and taking hold. The next time I look out the window, the glass is in the frame and the shards are gone from the floor and sink.
Mum looks amazing. Healthy and young. And she smiles at me. It’s almost as unsettling as finding an Elder God in your hallway. But her brow is crinkled, trying to remember something.
“What’s the matter, Mum?” I ask.
“I…I’m not sure.” Her voice is soft and gentle. I barely recognise it. This will take us both some getting used to.
But the human brain is a wonderful thing. She smiles again, as though choosing to forget, a brightness in her eyes.
“Fancy a movie?” she asks. “You can pick.”
“Sure,” I say, a twang of uncertainty in my voice. Then I decide to embrace this reality. I did create it, after all. “And some ice cream?”
It’s about 10.30 by now, but she’ll say yes. And there’s cookie dough ice cream in the freezer. I know there is, although there wasn’t a minute ago.
“Yes please,” she says.
She heads to the bedroom to set up the DVD player and I go to the freezer and take out the tub of ice cream. I also remove the frosty book lurking behind a lasagna. When I look at the title now, it reads The Elder Gods, their history, nature, and control thereof. I grin at the thought of a mortal attempting to control a god, but I click my fingers and the book winks out of existence, just in case.
With two spoons in one hand and our late-night treat in the other, I go find my mum. I take a peek into my bedroom on my way past. It’s clean and tidy, with a plain purple duvet set on the bed and my faultless chemistry homework completed on the desk. An alien sensation flutters in my chest. Contentment. And pride, like I solved an extra tricky equation. For the first time in my life, everything feels balanced and complete. I’ve been carrying the solutions around inside myself all these years without even realising. I won’t ever let uncertainty overwhelm my self-confidence again, I know it.