Dar(k)lings On My Mind

Jason Kocemba 5846 words 29 minute read

Sometimes, I see my daughters when I look at my girls.

But I don’t believe it.

They’re not my daughters, those twins. Absolutely not.

They might have been for the first few minutes after they were born, but I felt uneasy when the midwives took the twins away to weigh them and cut their umbilical chords. When the midwives came back, something had changed. Their movements were strained and unnatural, like they didn’t have full use of their limbs. When they handed Abigail to Brenda and Alison to me, their relief was obvious as they turned on their heals and left us alone with the babies.

I wanted the midwives to come back, come back and take the infant from my arms.

Brenda poured her attention on Abigail. I felt something touch my cheek. I looked down at Alison. Her eyes were open and focused on mine. I didn’t think newborns could do that. I stopped breathing. My head felt like it floated off my shoulders. My face tightened in disgust and I had the sudden urge to drop her.

Alison screwed her eyes shut and her hands clenched into chubby pink balls. She wailed.

I breathed again and my head settled back onto my shoulders.

I looked up at Brenda. Abigail was already suckling. Brenda held her hand out for the bawling Alison and gestured to the other breast.

“That’s why I’ve got two,” she said.

I’ve never been so relieved to let something go in my life.


If I were alone in a room with Abigail, she ignored me.

If I were alone in a room with Alison, she frowned and scowled and cried.

When I was alone with them both, they stopped what they were doing and focused their undivided attention upon me. I thought of it as a special ability they had, one that only manifested when they were alone with me.

When Brenda entered, they would become babies again, focus gone.


I hated being alone with the twins and avoided it as much as I could.


The front door opened. I was sure that I had more time. My heart changed up into a higher gear.

“Hey Dad,” Abigail said as she walked into the living room.

“Hello,” I said. I placed my book down on the arm of the chair. I became wary, ready.

She dumped her bag and coat on the living room floor. “Alison will be home soon.”

“Soon?” I might still have time to escape. “Good,” I said.

On her way to the kitchen, she spoke over her shoulder: “She wants to speak to you.”

She wanted to speak to me?

Alison never started a conversation with me. She spoke when spoken too, or when prompted by her mother. “Yeah?” I hoped I didn’t sound as panicked as I felt. “Do you know what it’s about?”

Abigail nodded and smiled. I couldn’t remember the last time she had smiled at me. Had she ever?

I pushed down on the arms of the chair and rose. Which way out? The back door was not an option, since Abigail was in the way. The front door was out, as Alison might already be walking up the garden path. That only left the bathroom upstairs: the only room with a lock.

The front door opened for the second time.

I would never make the stairs before Alison spotted me. I sat back down. My eyes could not look away from the living room doorway. Sweat tickled as it ran down my side. I shivered.

Alison came through the doorway.

She said nothing and dumped her bag and coat on the floor on top of the pile made by Abigail’s. She looked towards the kitchen and I followed her gaze. Abigail came through with a glass of milk in one hand and a sandwich with a big bite out of it in the other. She was chewing. Alison focused her eyes on mine.

I blinked to break eye contact.

Abigail stared at me, too.

They moved to the sofa opposite my armchair and sat down in perfect synchronisation. Their eyes never left my face.

“Are you ready?” Abigail said.

My eyes switched from one to the other. My mouth was dry, my tongue stuck in place. No, I was not ready. I nodded and smiled. Agreeing to the one thing I didn’t want. My smile was strained and fake and tightened my face into a mask.

Each looked at me with the same expressionless face. Alison’s hands cupped her knees. Abigail’s hands held the glass of milk and the sandwich an inch above her legs. Alison’s knuckles whitened as she tightened her grip. Abigail crushed the bread in her fist. Peanut butter oozed out over her fingers and a glob fell onto her thigh.

Alison opened her mouth to speak.

The front door opened for the third time.

Both girls turned as one to look out into the hallway. My throat clicked as I swallowed. The release of the pressure of their gaze was like a weight lifted from me.

“Hellooo!” Brenda called out from the hall.

“Hiii-iiii,” the twins chorused. Alison got up, grabbed her bag and coat from the pile, and headed for the kitchen. Abigail sat back, took a sip of milk, and then licked peanut butter from between her fingers.

Brenda appeared at the door with a smile. “Hey there.”

Seeing that smile, I let out my breath. “Hi, Bren. Sight for sore eyes, honey.”

Her smile faltered a bit, a shadow of a frown on her brow. “You okay? You look a bit flushed.”

“Fine. I’m fine.”

“If you say so.” She looked closer. “Probably don’t need that jumper today.”

“No,” I attempted a laugh. It sounded fake. “Probably not.”

“Abigail, you’ve got peanut butter on you,” Brenda said.

Abigail looked and noticed the brown spot on her leg. “Argh!” She hopped up and disappeared into the kitchen.

Brenda sat on the edge of the sofa. She sat forward with her hands on her knees. I tried to ignore the similarity to the way Alison had sat. “So. How was your day?”


Brenda had planned a big party for the twins’ eighteenth birthday.

I helped to make the plan, therefore I knew all of their movements for the entire day. My itinerary meant I would never be alone with both the twins at the same time, and my only goal was to always have an escape route.

The party after lunch would be for family only in a small room at the local Community Centre. It was my job to decorate the room. It was marketed to the twins as a surprise, so they were banished from seeing any of the preparations. I locked the door anyway and enjoyed a good forty minutes without any worry. I stood in the centre of the hall and looked around. Everything was as perfect as I could make it: the balloons, the bunting, the tables full of drinks and nibbles. It was almost time for me to go and pick up Aunt Evie and Uncie Pauly from the station. Everything was going well and my plan was holding up.

Then my phone rang.

Alison’s name flashed up on the screen. She never called me. Never. I knew it was a mistake, and I didn’t want to, but I pressed the green answer button anyway.

“Mum’s been in an accident,” Alison said. I almost didn’t recognise her voice. “You have to come.”

I stood rock still in the hall surrounded by party decorations. “What happened?”

“We’re at the Royal Infirmary. A&E. She’s asking for you. Hold on, the doctor’s here. Come quick.”

She hung up.

This wasn’t in the plan. Images of blood and Brenda in pain flashed through my mind. Car keys. They were in my jacket, so I needn’t go home. I jogged down the street to where I was parked. As I pulled the keys out of my pocket, Abigail came rushing up from the other direction. She was smiling. This was odd in itself, but when she got close enough and looked at my face, she saw there was something wrong there.


When was the last time she had called me dad? “Your mum had an accident. She’s at the hospital with Alison.”

Tears appeared in Abigail’s eyes. “Mum?” Had I ever seen so much stricken emotion on her face? Against my better judgement, I felt sorry for her.

“Here, phone your sister, see if you can find anything out,” I said, and gave her my phone. “Excuse me.” I stepped past her and opened the car door.

Abigail held the phone up to her ear. “No-one’s answering.”

“Call your Auntie Evie. Tell her there’s been a change of plan.” No shit, the plan was in tatters. “She’ll have to catch a taxi or something.”

We got in and put on our seat belts.

“Hi Auntie Evie, it’s Abi. Yes, thank you. Can you catch a taxi to our house? Mum’s been in an accident and we can’t come and get you. I don’t know. No, I don’t know, we just heard. We’re heading to the hospital now. Okay, thanks. Bye.” Abigail hung up.

“Try your sister again,” I said.

After a moment, she put the phone down on her lap. “She’s not picking up.” She was holding it together pretty well. “I hope Mum’s okay.”

I glanced at her and saw her lip quiver as she looked down at the phone.

“I’m—” I wanted to pat her leg, or send her a brave smile, but I couldn’t. “I’m sure she’s fine.” She turned away to look out the car window. Her shoulders shook. Was she crying? I couldn’t remember the last time I saw her cry. Maybe once, as a baby.


We parked in the visitors’ car park at the hospital and Abigail strode ahead so that I couldn’t see her face. She entered A&E and walked straight past the reception desk. I saw she was talking to Alison in the waiting area. Alison had a sad smile on her lips.

I walked towards them. I didn’t want to. It went against all my self-discipline, all my avoidance training.

“Can I help you?” A woman at the reception desk said.

I turned half-way towards her so that I could keep half an eye on the twins. “Uh, yes. I was told my wife is here? Brenda Brown.”

The receptionist typed the name into her computer and double checked something on a clipboard. “Take a seat in the waiting area, please. A doctor will come see you as soon as they can.”

“Do you… can you tell me if she’s okay?”

“I’m sorry.” She shook her head. “A doctor will be with you shortly.”

I turned away from the twins. I didn’t want to because I didn’t like not being able to see them. “I need to see my wife.” I leaned over and pulled her screen towards me. “Which cubicle?” The receptionist grabbed the other side of the screen. I wanted to turn and check on the twins. Instead, I let the screen go and left the reception desk, and walked into the treatment area.

“Mr Brown, please, she isn’t in there. She’s been taken up for testing.”

I ignored her and walked up the corridor and looked into curtained cubicles. “Brenda?”

The receptionist followed behind me. “Please, Mr Brown, she isn’t here.”

Alison spoke: “It’s alright. We’ll take him.”

Her tone struck me. No emotion. A command.

In the middle of the corridor, just behind the receptionist, my daughters stood holding hands. Alison reached out and placed her hand on the receptionist’s arm. My eyes bounced from one set of staring eyes to the next.

The receptionist nodded to Alison and walked towards her desk, seemingly convinced that all was well.

“Wait! Where are you going?” The receptionist ignored me, walked past her desk and disappeared around a corner. That’s when I realised that there was no-one else about. No doctors, nurses or patients.

My knees felt weak. I had an urge to pee. My face was frozen and my hands had curled into fists. I was going to run. I knew it. I felt it. My carefully laid plans had come to nothing. They had manipulated my fear for Brenda.

Abigail’s grin was all mouth and no eyes. Any emotional concern she may have shown for her mother was gone. I doubted any of it had been real. I should have known.

They took a synchronised stride towards me and all I could see were their identical pairs of eyes.

I felt my pulse slam in my temples. “No.” I took a backward step.

Still holding hands, they moved apart, spread themselves wide. They knew I was going to run, too.

To my left and right were treatment rooms and cubicles, dead-ends with no chance of escape. I did not wish to be examined in them. I breathed in a huge lungful of air, about to shout for help. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something green. I held the breath: ‘STAIRS’, the sign said.

I ran.

The door slammed open under my palm and I stumbled into a stairwell with stairs going up. I did not hesitate and took the stairs three at a time. The door clicked shut below. I pulled hard on the banister to help me climb faster.

The door opened again.

“Dad!” Alison said. She sounded exasperated, not angry. “We want to talk to you.”

If I could have jammed my fingers into ears, I would, but I was too busy running and needed my arms for balance. I had climbed five flights.

“You need to hear this,” Abigail’s voice echoed up the stairwell. “Wait!” I kept going. She sounded angrier than her sister for once.

The stairs ended on the fourth floor, no more up. I exited the stairwell and ran along a corridor. My shoes squeaked on the vinyl floor. I aimed for the opposite side of the building and hoped for another stairwell going down. But when I got there, I couldn’t find any exit signs, and every door I tried was locked. I couldn’t go back. The twins were coming. I ran past the end of a ward and glanced in.

A person stood beside the last bed on the right. They pulled the privacy curtain shut.


I skidded to a halt.

The privacy curtain swayed with the momentum of having been swept closed. I saw a shadow of movement behind the curtain.

There was no-one else in the ward.

“Brenda?” I glanced back down the corridor towards the stairs. Still no sign of the girls.

I should go. I had to go. But I couldn’t leave. Not yet.

The curtain came to rest.

I walked towards the bed at the end of the ward. Why the hell wasn’t I running?

“Brenda?” I said. “Are you all right?”

There was no time for this. I couldn’t be here. The ward was a dead-end.

When I got close enough, I reached out a hand to yank the curtain aside.

My fingers slid across the synthetic material with a whisper.

A cool finger slid across the back of my neck.

I screamed and ducked away like I had been scalded. I kept moving, away from both the curtain and what had just touched me.

I didn’t want to see, but I looked anyway: it was Abigail. Her arm was held out in front of her, her hand relaxed, her index finger extended. Alison stood behind and looked at me from over her sister’s shoulder. “Daddy, daddy, daddy,” she said. Her face and tone mocked me.

I backed away and into the railings of a hospital bed on the other side of the ward.

At the curtain, I saw a silhouette materialise behind the curtain. A shadow hand grabbed the fabric and pulled it aside.

It was Brenda. Of course.

I knew that I had been played, but like so many times in the last eighteen years, I was glad to see her. Glad that she seemed uninjured. Delighted that I was no longer alone with the twins. It didn’t seem to matter that I had been drawn into a snare, that my neck was in the noose and it was closing tight.

Brenda stared at me with the same blank but intense expression as the girls.

I looked from Brenda to Abigail to Alison. And it all fell into place. “Brenda?”

“It’s time,” Abigail said.

My hands made fists. My jaw tightened. I was such a fucking idiot. “Time for what?” I said through clenched teeth. I even managed a tentative step forward.

“The truth,” Brenda said.

Brenda had known from the start, she had been in league with them, she had been a part of it all. They had made me paranoid, made me doubt myself, made me frightened.

“He won’t like it,” Alison said.

Abigail shrugged. “He doesn’t have to.”

Brenda moved forward, and I moved back against the bed. It didn’t matter how angry I got. They had conditioned fear into me these last eighteen years, and I couldn’t stand my ground. Alison was right, I wouldn’t like it. I didn’t want to like it. The ward wasn’t wide enough, high enough, there wasn’t enough air. I couldn’t keep all three of them in sight at the same time. My head ticked back and forth.

This was it, the moment I had been avoiding. The summit of my fears. Never in any of my sweaty imaginings had Brenda been a part of the picture. She had always been on my side, my protector, my shield.

All three stepped forward. The metal railings of the bed dug into the backs of my thighs. The cats were done with playing with the mouse.

The walls crowded closer, the ceiling lowered. I gasped, forcing myself to suck in more air. I couldn’t get enough. There was no escape. I saw nothing but their shiny, intent eyes. Three pairs, all alike, all staring into mine.

I felt dizzy. The world turned grey. I fell.


I could hear Alison talking. “He’s an idiot!” Alison said.

Abigail giggled. “He lost it.”

“Told you,” Alison said.

“It’s your own fault,” Brenda said. “You built it up. He’s weak – we’ve always known he’s weak.”

Oh, Brenda.

“He’s awake,” Alison and Abigail said in unison.

I lay for a moment longer. What now? I opened my eyes.

All three stood above me. They were too close. I tried to back away, but couldn’t move. Something around my chest and hips stopped me. My arms and legs were held down.

I couldn’t get up and those three pairs of eyes continued to stare down at me.

I couldn’t be here. Not with my daughters so close. I had been afraid of them since they were born. They watched me, their eyes dark, unreadable. I felt exposed, lying there. Too open, too vulnerable. I had to flee. It felt like the constant jabbing and shock of a cattle prod in my mind. I didn’t care if I hurt myself. I pushed my arms and legs up as high as they would go and slammed them down and arched my back. I thrust and pushed and pulled, becoming more frenzied by the second. I spat obscenities at my wife and daughters. When I ran out of words, I simply spat. When I ran out of spit, I thrashed about some more. Eventually, I ran out of energy and lay still, my breath ragged, my heart thudding.

A cool hand settled on my forehead. I looked up at Brenda. Was this supposed to calm me? I lifted my head towards her, her palm pressed down. The muscles on my neck bulged as I pushed up. The coolness felt nice, but I didn’t want it there. She had betrayed me, betrayed everything. I shook my head from side-to-side like a dog. I couldn’t dislodge her hand one bit.

“Please, Will,” Brenda said. “This isn’t doing you any good.”

“Get your fucking hand off me,” I said.

“Please,” Brenda said. “Lie back.” She pushed harder against my forehead.

“Yeah, Dad,” Abigail said. “It’ll make it…”

“… more fun!” finished Alison.

Brenda shot a glance at the girls. “Be quiet.”

Brenda applied gentle pressure on my forehead until my neck muscles shook with the strain. I knew I couldn’t hold it. I let my head fall back onto the pillow. Her hand followed me down and maintained the pressure on my forehead. My limbs burned with fatigue and my brain felt frazzled by the continuous cattle prod gaze of the ones that were supposed to love me. I couldn’t live like this. It might already be too late, but I’d had enough: enough of the terror, enough of the paranoia, enough of the running. I couldn’t do it any more; I’d go crazy.

I didn’t have to play their game.

With that realisation, the agony of the cattle prod disappeared. Next, it was the terror. Without the pain, there was nothing to fear.

I wouldn’t play. No more.

Perhaps there was a sense of possibility, a sense that everything might be okay, might be different if I could get free.

I relaxed all my muscles, ceased my struggle.


Brenda took her hand from my brow. I could still feel the coolness even after her hand was gone. I resisted the urge to lift my head and kept it on the pillow.

She turned to the girls and nodded. She moved back so I could no longer see her.

Alison moved closer to my left. Abigail stepped around to my right. Abigail took my limp right hand and held it between hers. Her hands were cool like her mothers. Stay relaxed, I told myself. Wait.

Alison placed her hands on the bed. She did not touch me.

I couldn’t keep them both in my field of view at the same time, so I had to move my head, side-to-side, daughter to daughter. My hair made fast brushing sounds on the pillow.

Brenda reappeared at the foot of the bed.

“Dad?” Alison said. I turned to her. “Who is our father?”


“Who is our father?”

What the hell was this? Confusion threatened my control. I wanted to grab their wrists and squeeze and grind until they let me go. I had to stay calm.

“Who, Daddy?” Abigail said. I kept my eyes on Alison. Her eyes were almost bored as they stared into mine.

What did they want from me? “I am,” I said.

Alison nodded. Was that a flicker of a smile on her lips?

“That’s right. You,” Alison said. “You are our father.”

“We are your daughters,” Abigail said.

“I am your wife,” Brenda said. “Do you remember?”

I looked at their earnest faces and I tried to see myself from their point-of-view. What did they see? A cold part of me wanted nothing more than to ignore all the questions and be free to rend and tear and snap and pound. I held that fury in check, not by the restraints, but by my cunning.

“Yes,” I said. I even tried a smile. “Of course I remember. You’re my family.”

Alison frowned, and Abigail shook her head and pouted. Alison looked at Brenda. “He’s faking.”

“I know,” Brenda said.

Abigail squeezed my hand in hers. “What now?”

“Undo the strap, Abigail,” I said. “Please. My wrist hurts and I need to scratch an itch. I’m trying. I really am. I’ll give you anything you want. Just let me up. We can work this out. All together. Please, just undo the strap, okay honey?”

“No, Daddy.” She let go of my hand and yanked the wrist strap tighter. The back of my wrist was held firm against the mattress. “If you can’t remember, we have to help you remember.”

Alison and Brenda tightened the straps on my other wrist and ankles. Abigail tightened the chest strap and Alison the one over my hips.

I’d never been the one to discipline them. That had, for a reason that was now obvious, always been Brenda’s job. I could never bring myself to discipline someone I was scared of. I couldn’t do it. Not even once.

But now, I was no longer afraid.

“That’s enough,” I said. I did not raise my voice. “Untie me, Abigail. Untie me or you are going to be in a lot of trouble. This is against the law. It’s a crime. Alison, you need to stop listening to what your mother tells you for a moment and listen to your daddy. Untie me. Right now. You’ll go to prison. Brenda, I’ll press charges. Their lives will be ruined and it’ll be your fault. You have to stop.”

The expression on each of their faces did not alter one iota. They could not be intimidated. At least not with reason. I tried a different tack.

“Please, it’s too tight, Abi, honey. I think my circulation has stopped. I’m getting pins and needles. I can’t feel my legs. Ali, please, my chest hurts, I can’t breathe. Please. It hurts. I got scared and I ran away, I’m sorry. I won’t run away again. I promise. I know you’ll catch me, I know there’s nowhere I can go. I won’t run. Please, I can’t feel the tips of my fingers. Brenda, I love you, please.”

I made long and lingering eye contact with each of them as I said their names. I let them see my helplessness. I let them see my tears.

There was no response at all. Not a flicker.

My humiliation flared up, bright and hot. They were still playing with me. The shame transformed into something else. My control, tenuous as it was, slipped away.

“What do you fucking want from me? I’m going to poke out your creepy fucking eyes and crush your stupid fucking faces. Untie me! When I’m free, I’m going to fucking kill you!”

All three stared at me with interest as if I were a particularly rare and colourful moth pinned to a board. I wasn’t sure if their interest was better than their boredom and disappointment.

I stopped. Took a breather. The twins had always looked at me in this way, ever since the midwives had brought them back into the theatre. But what about Brenda? When did she change? She had seemed fine yesterday. Did the girls get her alone, tie her down like this and do something to her? Did they want to do the same thing to me?

“All done?” Alison said. I looked at her, I felt how hot my face was. “Mum?”

“Go ahead.”

“About bloody time. So, dad, who is our father?”

“I don’t know, not me,” I said. “For all I know you don’t have a fucking father.”

Alison glanced across my chest at Abigail.

“That’s right,” Abigail said. “But who is our father?”

“I don’t have a clue. You’re nothing to do with me.”

Abigail shook here head. “You’re wrong. We’re yours. Who is our father?”

“Who is my husband?” Brenda said.

“Who is our father?” Abigail and Alison said together.

What did they want me to say?

“You haven’t been well,” Brenda said. “For a long time. You’ve forgotten.”

I haven’t been well? They are the ones who haven’t been well. Not since they were babies. I’m not the one that went wrong. I didn’t want to remember, I didn’t want to understand.

“SHUT UP!” I screamed. “Father, husband, beggar-man, thief. I don’t care. You’re all sick, sick as fuck! Why would you do this to me?”

“It’s not working,” Alison said.

“It isn’t,” Abigail said.

Brenda shook her head, her face blank. She didn’t look the least bit sad about anything. She looked bored. “Plan B.”

“What have they done to you, Bren?”

Brenda looked at me with something like pity in her eyes. It wasn’t pity, but it was a fair facsimile. “We hate seeing you like this, Will. We want to help you. It has to stop. We want you to come back to us. We love you.”

“Yeah, we love you,” Abigail said. Alison nodded. Was that a tear in her eye? Not fucking likely.

“Funny bloody way of showing it.” I sneered and rattled my bonds.

The fake pity was now tinged with something else in Brenda’s eyes. “Why are you doing this?”

“Why am I-? For fuck’s sake, Brenda.”

“We were happy, Will. You and I. Remember? The twins were coming. The girls were born, we were happy, excited, they were beautiful. But you went away. Got lost. I lost you. We lost you.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. She wasn’t Brenda. Not my Brenda, not any more. They had turned her, done something to her, and now I was on my own. “No. I’ve lost you.”

“Will.” Brenda stepped closer. “Please.”

“They’ve turned you.”

“No,” she said. “We should be together, Will. We’re a family.”

“No, we’re not. They stare at me. They watch me. They hate me.” I nodded my head towards Alison and then to Abigail. My eyes never left Brenda’s.

“We’ve made it worse,” Abigail said. “He’s getting farther away.”

“No, Abigail,” I said. “I remember everything. The hints, the staring, the watching, the accusations, the threats. I don’t want to know what you have to tell me. I don’t want to be one of you, okay? Don’t you get it? I was protecting myself. I want to be me. Just leave me alone.”

“Can’t you hear yourself?” Brenda said. “Can’t you hear how paranoid you sound? Protecting yourself? Spying on your daughters was protecting yourself?”

“They’re not my daughters,” I said.

Brenda sighed.

“Daddy,” Abigail said. “You’ve forgotten, that’s all. Mum’s told us you used to be different. As we grew, we’ve seen you forget more and more. We’ve only ever wanted to help you. We want you to find yourself.”

“You are one of us,” Alison said. “There is no turning. Unless you count how you turned away from us.”

“I’M NOT ONE OF YOU.” It was a roar and something in my throat gave way in a sharp thrill of pain. I thrashed and flopped against the restraints. I felt muscles tear deep inside me with sharp pin prick rips.

All three stepped back from the bed.

“I’m not one of you,” I said. My eyes were dry, raw and scratchy. I felt strong, not tired. I grinned at them. “I don’t know what you are.” I turned and stared at Abigail. “Maybe I’ll find out what you are when I conduct an autopsy on your corpse. How would you like that, Abigail, darling?”

She grinned back. A look of hope burned in her eyes. Was it fake? “That would be fine, Daddy.”

I had meant to hurt her, shock her, to knock her out of her composure. It wasn’t meant to be encouragement. And yet, I felt something else. Deep inside. I was empowered when I said these things. To threaten made me less afraid.

“You’re an idiot,” Alison said.

I switched off my grin and turned from Abigail to Alison.

“How could you forget?” she said and took a step closer. Her face full of hate and anger. “Come on then, come dig in my guts, see what you find, you prick.”

My lips curled back from my teeth. More pin pricks of pain sparkled in my limbs and in my torso. They spread out until they were everywhere. My skin felt hot and seemed tighter around my frame.

Abigail smiled at her sister. “Plan C?”

“Yeah,” Alison said. “This useless bastard needs a push.”

Her eyes were on me, always staring, always watching, always focused on my eyes. Her face was expressionless, slack, like the mask it was. I looked at her stupid fucking expression and my rage expanded and my skin grew tighter. Abigail and Brenda wore their faces in the same slack mask.

Alison slapped me, her hand curled into a claw so that her nails raked across my cheek. “Who is our father?” she said.

Abigail stepped in and punched me in the gut. “Who is our father?” she said.

Brenda punched me in the groin. “Who is my husband?” she said.

The strikes should have hurt but I felt nothing. My muscles fizzed with pinpricks of tiny localised pain. The straps tightened where they touched me.

I emptied my lungs in a scream of defiance, my mouth wide. The strap around my chest loosened as my chest deflated.

Alison punched me in the face, mashing my nose, Abigail thumped the heel of her hand into my arms and chest, Brenda struck me, left right left right, on my thighs, lower stomach and groin.

My eyes grew moist, a balm. Still, I did not feel the blows. In their impassive faces I saw that this was no frenzy. I ignored them and breathed deep. I arched my back and pushed my chest up. I pulled my arms against the restraints, squeezed my pectorals, and strained to bring my arms together. My muscles effervesced under my skin. The right wrist strap snapped and my right hand was free.

Their punches were nothing but annoyances. I untied the chest strap and then my left wrist. They stopped their onslaught. I sat up and worked the hip strap loose. As I untied my thighs, they moved to the end of the bed and lined up: Alison, Abigail, Brenda.

I undid the straps at my ankles. I dripped blood over the white hospital sheets.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt this good. I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so me.

I stood in front of Alison. Her eyes stared back into mine. What I had mistaken for hate and disdain, I now saw as vindication and pride. I slapped her, curling my hand so my nails raked across her cheek. “I am your father.”

Abigail’s eyes never left my face. There was a hint of a smile on her lips. I punched her in the chest and forced her to stagger back. “I am your father.”

Brenda’s eyes were full of relief and joy and love. I hit her with an uppercut in the solar plexus. It doubled her over. Her breath whooshed out. “I am your husband.”

Brenda’s head came back up, her eyes met mine, and she grinned as she straightened up. “We found you.”

We turned as one and walked out of the hospital ward as a family. I had never felt part of it before. It was like being given another chance. Like being born again.

“Let’s go home, get cleaned up, and I’ll take you out for a birthday dinner. Auntie Evie and Uncie Pauley will be waiting,” I said.

My girls laughed and watched me.

I don’t know what I had been so afraid of.