A very large, very strong-looking orderly brought her into the room. I stood up when she came in, as some kind of misplaced show of respect. She was older than I had expected her to be. In my mind she had stayed frozen the way I’d seen her last, but she had to be in her mid-forties by now.
Her blond hair had turned into a frizzy mess thanks to the years of neglect, and she had it pulled back in a short pony-tail. She was thin, the way she had always been, in a beautifully elegant borderline-anorexic way. A massive blue bathrobe hung on her, frayed and worn, the sleeves draping down over her hands.
Her skin was pale porcelain, and even without any makeup, she was stunningly beautiful. More than that, she carried this regality with her. It was clear that she had come from money, that she had spent her life on top, ruling her school, her social circles, even her family.
“They said you were here, but I didn’t believe them,” said my mother with a wry smirk.
She stood a few steps away from me, and I wasn’t sure what to do. The way she looked at me was the same way people might inspect a particularly heinous-looking bug just before they squashed it under their shoe.
“Hi, Mom,” I offered meekly, unable to think of anything better to say.
“Kim,” she corrected me coldly. “My name is Kim. Cut the pretense. I’m not your mother, and we both know it.” She gestured vaguely to the chair I had pushed out behind me and walked over to the table. “Sit. Take a seat.”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, sitting down. She sat down across from me, crossing her legs and leaning back in her chair, like I was contagious and she didn’t want to get sick.
“That’s what this is about it, isn’t it?” She waved her hand in front of her face, then laid it delicately on the table. Her nails were long and perfect, recently painted with clear polish. “You’ve finally figured it out. Or have you always known? I never could tell.”
“No, I never knew,” I said quietly. “I still don’t know.”
“Look at you. You’re not my daughter.” My mother gave me a contentious look and clicked her tongue. “You don’t know how to dress or walk or even speak. You mutilate your nails.” She pointed a manicured fingertip at my chewed-down nails. “And that hair!”
“Your hair isn’t any better,” I countered. My dark curls had been pulled up in their usual bun, but I had actually tried styling my hair this morning when I was getting ready. I thought it looked pretty good, but apparently I was wrong.
“Well . . .” She smiled humorlessly. “I have limited resources.” She looked away for a moment, then turned back to rest her icy gaze on me. “But what about you? You must have all the styling products in the world. Between Matthew and Maggie, I’m sure you’re spoiled rotten.”
“I get by,” I allowed sourly. She made it sound like I should feel ashamed for the things I had, like I had stolen them. Although I suppose, in her mind, I kinda had.
“Who brought you here anyway?” Clearly the idea had just occurred to her, and she glanced behind her, as if she expected to see Matt or Maggie waiting in the wings.
“Matt,” I answered.
“Matthew?” She looked genuinely shocked. “There is no way he would condone this. He doesn’t even . . .” Sadness washed across her face and she shook her head. “He’s never understood. I did what I did to protect him too. I never wanted you to get your claws into him.” She touched her hair, and tears welled in her eyes, but she blinked them back and her stony expression returned.
“He thinks he has to protect me,” I informed her, mostly because I knew it would bother her. Disappointingly, she didn’t look that upset. She just nodded in understanding.
“For all his sense and maturity, Matthew can be incredibly naive. He always thought of you as some lost, sick puppy he needed to care for.” She brushed a frizzy strand of hair from her forehead and stared at a spot on the floor. “He loves you because he’s a good man, like his father, and that has always been his weakness.” Then she looked up hopefully. “Is he going to visit me today?”
“No.” I almost felt bad about telling her that, but she smiled bitterly at me and I remembered why she was here.
“You’ve turned him against me. I knew you would. But . . .” She shrugged emptily. “It doesn’t make things easier, does it?”
“I don’t know.” I leaned in toward her. “Look, M— . . . Kim. I am here for a reason. I want to know what I am.” I backtracked quickly. “I mean, what you think I am.”
“You’re a changeling,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that by now.”
My heart dropped, but I tried to keep my expression neutral. I pressed my hands flat on the table to keep them from shaking. It was just as I had suspected, and maybe I had always known.
When Finn told me, it had instantly made sense, but I don’t know why hearing it from Kim made things feel so different.
“How could you possibly know that?” I asked.
“I knew you weren’t mine the second the doctor placed you in my arms.” She twisted at her hair and looked away from me. “My husband refused to listen to me. I kept telling him that you weren’t ours, but he . . .” She swallowed, pained at the memory of the man she’d loved.
“It wasn’t until I was in here, when I had all the time in the world, that I found out what you really were,” she went on, her eyes hardening and her voice strengthening with conviction. “I read book after book searching for an explanation for you. In an old book on fairy tales, I found out what kind of parasite you truly are—a changeling.”