It wasn't a glorious homecoming.
Nearly seven years had passed since I stepped through the window in search of Art. I found it almost impossible to believe, even though Lord Loss had warned me. Seven years of change, births and deaths, the world moving on - and I missed every minute of it.
Mum and Dad looked a lot older than I remembered. Wrinklier, greyer, a sadness in their eyes that hadn't been there before.
They thought I was a ghost. Although seven years had slipped by, I looked exactly the way I did when I disappeared, even dressed in the same clothes. Mum screamed. Dad too. They spun away from me, covering their eyes, panting with terror.
I hadn't expected such a reaction or prepared myself for the experience of having Mum and Dad scream at me with horror. I fell apart. Collapsed in tears. "It's me!" I kept wailing. "It's me! Me! Me!"
Eventually, shaking with fear, Dad edged forward. Maybe he wouldn't have been so brave if I hadn't been crying like a baby. He poked my bald head, finger trembling, expecting it to slide through me. When it didn't, he frowned and poked me again.
"I'm real," I moaned, looking at him, wanting him to hold me, hug me, tell me he loved me. "It's me. Kernel. I'm real, Dad. I'm back."
"Kernel?" he croaked, shaking his head softly. "It can't be. You're... no... it can't..."
Then he fell on me, folded me in his arms, bellowed my name and burst into tears. Moments later, Mum was beside me too, the pair picking at me, poking me, clutching me. Crying and laughing at the same time.
I spent ages trying to explain. I told them about the lights, the window, the kidnapping, stepping through after Cadaver, Beranabus, my journey between worlds, Lord Loss, Artery. They didn't believe me. Couldn't. But they had no other explanation for how I'd turned up unchanged (except for lots of cuts, scars and bruises).
"We should take him to a doctor," Dad said. "Have his body and mind looked at by experts. They might be able to uncover the truth."
"No!" Mum hissed before I could insist that my story was the truth. "He'd be a freak. There'd be questions we don't want to answer. They'd take him away. We might never see him again, lose him like Annabella and..." She didn't say the name of her third child. She refused to discuss Art not being real. Dad didn't probe either. It was the one part of my story neither asked to hear a second time.
With no other option, they reluctantly accepted my outlandish tales. But they didn't tell the neighbours about me. Dad said we'd be treated as lunatics if I repeated my demonic stories. Also, a lot of the people of Paskinston had lost children when Cadaver attacked. He wasn't sure how my reappearance would affect them.
They hid me inside the house while they tried to think of a way to introduce me back into village life. Mum wanted to pretend I was an orphaned cousin who just happened to look a lot like their supposedly dead son. Dad played about with a deep-freeze theory - he thought he could convince people that I'd been kept on ice by scientists for the past seven years.
When they realised how weak those explanations sounded, they decided to simply leave without saying anything. Running away had worked once - why not a second time? Pack our bags, move to where nobody knew us, start afresh. Mum and Dad loved Paskinston, but they loved me more. Stealing away like thieves in the night, saying nothing to any of their friends, seemed like the only solution. So that's what we did.
After trying out some small towns, where Mum never felt easy, we ended up in a city. Dad found work on a construction site, Mum in a fast-food restaurant. They teach me when they come home at night. During the day I stay indoors, watching television, reading, playing games, making model aeroplanes. It's not safe for me to go out and interact with other people. Mum and Dad are afraid I'll be taken from them if the truth emerges.
I'm not enjoying this life. It's not how I thought it would be. I did a brave thing, risked all to save my brother, went through torments and overcame obstacles that most people couldn't even imagine. But I'm not allowed to talk about it. I have to keep it hidden, like something shameful. We don't even talk about Art, what happened to him, the fact that he was a demon in disguise. I tried discussing it with Mum once, but she clapped her hands over her ears and shrieked at me to shut up and never mention his name again.
Mum and Dad aren't happy either. They don't say so, but I can see that secretly they wish I'd never returned. Losing me and Art was hard, but after seven years they'd learnt to deal with it. They'd found peace in Paskinston, were getting on with life, grateful to have each other and a place to call home.
I've wrecked all that. Turned their world upside-down and inside out. Forced them to abandon their home and friends, take to the road, live a life of secrets and fear.
I didn't want to ruin their lives. I wanted to save Art, bring him home, be a hero. I wanted Mum and Dad to hold me and love me, for everything to be all right after that terrible universe of monsters. I wanted my life back.
Instead, I've returned to lies and disguise, a nightmare every bit as awful as the one I hoped to escape forever when I left the universe of the Demonata.
The loneliness is worse than ever. Trapped indoors most of the time, nobody to play with or speak to. It was bad enough when I felt like an outsider, but at least I could mingle with other children, go to school, act like I fitted in. Now I'm totally alone. I can't even talk with Mum or Dad. They're always uneasy around me. They love me because I'm their son, but I'm sure they wonder sometimes and ask themselves, "Is that really Kernel? Can it truly be the boy we thought we'd lost? Or is it some monster pretending to be him?"
They have nightmares. I've heard them moaning in their sleep. Sometimes, one will wake screaming and sob for hours, held by the other, comforted.
But they never hold or comfort me.
Out of boredom, I start experimenting with the patches of light. Curious to see if I can manipulate them. Trying to get them to pulse. I don't want to open a window. I just want to see if I have the power here.
For a long time I make no progress. But eventually, I find a way. I have to think about a specific spot in the Demonata's universe, somewhere I've been. That gets the lights pulsing, though it takes hours of concentration. Once they're going, if I think of another place or person, other patches pulse, but slowly, in small numbers. I'm sure I could get more of them to pulse if I pushed myself, and gradually build a window. If I wanted to. Which I don't. Why would I ever return to that universe of vicious, magical insanity?
A dark, wet day. Mum and Dad are out at work. They were awake most of last night, crying and talking. I hate seeing them unhappy. I've tried everything I can to cheer them up and make it easier. Told jokes, avoided mentioning demons, worked hard at my lessons, kept up a smile whenever they're around.
But nothing works. They were delighted when I first returned, but that quickly gave way to a confused sadness and they're getting sadder every day. They don't know how to deal with me or this new life they've found themselves part of. It's too complicated.
They're starting to resent me. I can see it in their eyes, just a flash, every so often. A look that says they wish I'd never come back. That look strikes at my heart every time I catch it. Makes me want to burst into tears and throw myself at them for a hug. But I hold my smile. Pretend not to notice. Act like everything's fine. And only cry when they're not around.
The clouds part shortly after midday, for a few minutes. Then they roll back together and rain comes down more heavily than before.
Thinking about the universe of the Demonata. I hated it there, but I didn't feel out of place. I had a purpose, a function. I was the equal of Sharmila, Dervish, Raz, Shark, Nadia. No good at fighting, but I had other talents. They respected me. Even Beranabus was impressed.
I remember what he said. "Home isn't always where you expect it to be. You know where to find me."
Crazy. As if I'd ever want to go back there, face demons again, live like Nadia, a slave of the magician. Adrift in a universe of horrors, where you can't even depend on time. Nothing in this world could be as bad as that. Mum and Dad will accept me eventually. I'll make friends. Grow up normally. We'll laugh about this one day.
I'm sitting on the floor in the small living room of the apartment which we're renting. I rise and walk to the bathroom. Take the marbles out of my pocket, the orange marbles which I've carried ever since Art was stolen. I look down at them then hold them up, standing before the mirror. Place them in front of my eyes. Watch them twinkle. I try directing magic into them. Take my fingers away, telling them to hover in the air.
They fall. Roll away. I hurry after them before they disappear down one of the holes in the old floorboards.
Back to the living room, remembering how magical I was in that other place, the things I could do, the power I had. Sitting on the couch, I study the marbles again and recall what Sharmila said to me in the field before we parted. I think I know now what she was hinting, the secret she suspected. It's an impossible, wild and crazy theory. I'm sure it can't be right. But if it is...
Trying not to worry too much about what that might mean, I put the marbles away. As I stand, I notice some of the lights around me pulsing slowly. I stare at them numbly. It's like they're calling me, trying to suck me back into that realm of madness.
I turn my back on them and stride around the tiny apartment, looking for something to distract me. End up in my Mum and Dad's bedroom. Not much bigger than mine. A bed they can only just fit into. I let my eyes drift. It's untidy, clothes thrown about the place, dirty socks and underwear. The rooms were never like this in our previous homes. Mum was house-proud. Dad too. Always cleaning and tidying away. But not any more.
The mess upsets me. I turn to leave, but spot the corner of something sticking out from under a pillow on the bed. I edge over and slide it all the way out. It's a photograph of me and Art. I haven't seen it before. I'm holding Art over my head. He's laughing. I think I'm laughing too. But it's difficult to tell. Because Mum has scrawled all over my face with a pen. Line after line of black ink, obliterating my features, scratching me out of existence.
I put the photo back in its place. Cover it entirely. Return to the living room, my stomach hard and cold. The lights are pulsing around me, lots of them, faster than before, like they used to in the Demonata's universe. I think about Beranabus, what Sharmila said, the bitter look I sometimes get from Mum and Dad, the photo.
As a single tear trickles down my cheek, I reach out like a robot and start slotting the patches of pulsing lights together.