“I should probably prepare you to meet my aunt,” said Mahender.
“Wow, she’s that bad?”
“She’s worse, honestly,” he said, “she can be extremely… judgy.”
“I have aunts like that. I think everyone does.”
“Not like her, they don’t,” he said. “She has a very specific worldview, and a very black and white view of people. She either likes you, or she really, really doesn’t. If she doesn’t like you, there’s a good chance she’ll call you an idiot and slam the door in your face.”
“Wow.” Naomi felt a stupid, nervous giggle escape her lips. “No pressure.”
“I don’t mean to make you nervous,” said Mahender. “I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting yourself into.”
This was not what she wanted to hear right now. Between her being trapped in a pit between realities and her friends’ lives being in danger, she had enough to worry about. Now she had to impress someone’s judgmental aunt?
“So how do I make her like me?”
“There are a few things that help. Your outfit will be a point in your favor.”
Naomi looked down at her skinny jeans and plain black t-shirt. She couldn’t imagine why these clothes would impress anyone.
“Why is it a point in my favor?”
“It looks nice, but it’s simple. It’s not frilly or fancy,” he said. “It’ll give her the impression you care about your appearance without being vapid.”
“So if I was wearing a poofy pink dress or something, she’d refuse to help me?”
“That depends. Exactly how poofy are we talking?”
Naomi realized from Mahender’s expression that he’d been making a joke. She forced a polite laugh.
“What else will give me points with her?”
“Be very polite and respectful. She thinks very highly of herself, so it won’t hurt to suck up to her a bit.”
“You know a lot about how your aunt thinks for someone who tries to avoid her.”
“Well, when someone lives with you for four years, you tend to learn a lot about them,” said Mahender.
“When did she live with you?”
“She did her undergrad at a university near where my mum and I lived.”
“Her undergrad? For some reason, I was picturing her as being older than that.”
“Well, it was a while ago. Nearly twenty years ago, I think. I was just a kid.”
“It’s funny you say that, though. I remember thinking she was so much older than she was. She was seventeen, and she dressed like she was forty.”
“She wore these nineties power suits to class. Some of them had shoulder pads and everything.”
“That’s not so weird,” said Naomi. “A lot of business majors have to follow dress codes.”
“I don’t think she was a business major,” said Mahender. “She ended up working as some kind of scientist.”
“Okay, I take it back. That is weird,” said Naomi. “Was she a scientist for CPSI?”
“Yeah. She worked with the biotechnology team for a while, I think.”
What was it Sarah had said? That she was a piece of biotechnology?
“Um, can I ask what specifically she worked on?”
“She worked on a lot of things, from the sound of it. Some days, she just had to fetch coffee and file papers. Other days, well…”
One of the creatures–the one with a hoop skirt of tentacles–fell back, joining the two of them.
“Other days,” finished the creature, “she made us.”