In the end, it was Marcus who made the announcement, in his usual pompous way, wasting his slightly wheezy (all those years of motionless staring at a computer screen were beginning to take their toll), cigarette-scented breath on ever so many needlessly complicated words, which all really amounted to one simple message: 'Your mother, my wife, is finally pregnant with my child'. It might seem surprising to an outsider that she hadn't told me herself - but I really hadn't expected her to do it. Ever since her second marriage - a couple of years after Father's death; I must have been sixteen at the time - she had been avoiding me to an almost ridiculous extent, and I can't say I blamed her. An awkward, morosely silent teenage female version of your recently deceased husband is hardly a pleasant thing to have in a newly created household. Especially if the resemblance goes beyond mere appearance... But I digress.
So, yes, it was Marcus who made the announcement. After he did, there was a long, strained pause - of the kind that always makes me feel as if I'd choked on something - which was succeeded, in several slow-trickling minutes, by my small, rather emotionless 'Oh'. Because, really, what was I supposed to do - dance for joy? But there were millions of pregnant women all over the world, and nothing whatsoever singled my mother out of their number...
Since 'Oh' is the sort of remark that tends to leave you with nothing to add on the current subject, Marcus, the sly diplomat that he was, decided to change it.
'So, uh,' he said, in a most deliberately casual way, intertwining his long bony fingers like some ghastly macramé, 'What's going on with your life at the moment?'
I shrugged, 'Nothing'.
It was one of those rare instances during my conversations with Marcus when I was being perfectly truthful. There can hardly be anything going on with your life when you have none.
'I thought you were studying... something...' Poor thing, he was trying so hard not to sound disdainful - but he still did. Bookworms were an alien species for him - though, frankly, I was not even that much of a bookworm; my father had been one, probably the last of his kind.
'Ancient history,' I prompted. 'But they closed down the programme. I should have been getting my Master's this year... but instead I am... nowhere.'
Marcus snorted, about to mount his - and Mother's - hobby horse. 'That was the best thing the government did in years,' he said (almost) vehemently. 'Who needs ancient history? A complete waste of time and money; distracts young kids like you - and Sergius, in his day (Sergius was my father's name; Marcus had known him for quite some time before he died) - from making a real contribution to society, and causes... problems'.
I bit into my lower lip. How very step-fatherly of Marcus to bring it up. I knew exactly what kind of problems he was hinting at. My problems. What our family therapist - whom Marcus insisted on dragging me to once a month, 'for my own good' - called 'persistent hallucinations'. I saw faces. Faces in the crowd, like bright flashes in the heaving waves of grey - faces that did not belong there, that belonged nowhere at all. High cheekbones, sharp features, unnatural skin tones - yellowish-gold, dark-grey, green, - gleaming, gem-like eyes - sapphires, rubies, amber... And of course, large, pointed ears. Elves. Almost every time I walked down busy a street, my mind wandering in a direction completely different from that of my feet, or travelled in the packed subway, gasping for breath in the broiling soup of human bodies, or shifted listlessly in the back seat of our family car, surveying the other drivers stuck with us in a traffic jam - almost every time I would suddenly freeze, my hands limp and sticky with cold sweat, my heart pounding, and gape at a single dream-like face, a lone elf among countless humans. They were so real, those faces - but they were not. They could not be. Every single elf... no, every single mer - Orcs too, and also a great number of Bretons, and most likely Khajiit too, those of them who would not later mysteriously degrade into common housecats - had been killed by vengeful humans after The Last World War and the fall of the Second Aldmeri Dominion, an event which marked the end of the Old Days, the decay of magic and the rise of humankind to new heights of progress. Those faces were part of the past, past long gone, an unfamiliar world full of strange shadows that should best be left unstirred. That was why they stopped teaching ancient history. That was why they were gradually shutting down museum after museum, priceless relics of the past disappearing into nowhere. That was why my father, a dedicated archeologist, had almost been strangled in the snake-like coils of red tape while trying to start a dig in what once had been known as Summerset Isle. And that was why I kept lying to Marcus and our therapist when they asked me if I still saw the faces. I had been awfully indiscreet in the past - first, as a child, I would innocently tell the grown-ups about the things I saw; then, as a teenager, I would desperately try to prove that the faces were really there... but now I knew better. The faces were part of the past - and they were also part of my heart, a locked-up place where I would never let anyone in, not anyone who, like Marcus, had shameless, prying eyes and no more soul than a milk carton. The faces were part of me, they were my secret treasure, and so I lied about my 'hallucinations' having stopped so that Marcus and the likes of him would leave me alone and let me savour them in peace.
And this time, I lied yet again, 'Oh, you know that was long ago. Stress and all that. I feel much better now'.
The corners of Marcus's mouth twitched in what he must have believed to be a smile of approval. 'In any case,' he went on, eyeing me closely from beneath his eyebrows, 'Now that you are not studying - what do you expect to do with yourself? At your age, it's rather, uh, unconventional to rely on your parents' support all the time...' I had to restrain myself from rolling up my eyes; a lot of support Marcus and Mother had been giving me. 'And besides, soon you will not be the only child... It's time you went out there into the great wide world and started looking out for yourself, don't you think?'
My heart sank. After a brief exchange of forced smiles, I asked, quietly, gazing down at my fingernails (short, squarish and undyed), 'What do you have in mind?'
'There is a vacancy open in one of the BBI offices that you could easily secure for you,' Marcus elaborated generously. 'About the only skills required are a good knowledge of literal Cyrodiilic and the ability to operate a computer without setting it on fire,' from the way he strained his voice, I realized that he was trying to make a sort of genial, friendly joke. 'The post is not too significant, of course - but it will get you started on the way out of the dreamworld and into present-day reality'.
I mulled his words over for some time and, for want of anything else to do, decided to accept the offer.