I first suspected things weren’t right around the time of my eighth birthday.
I remember the party in our backyard.
The homemade chocolate cake glistening like a freshly laid turd in the afternoon sun. Becky Coleman vomiting all over her mother’s new shoes. Shreds of red tissue paper trailing in the air as I rushed to open my presents.
As the other children laughed and screamed and chased one another, I found myself watching. Studying them. And realising I was different somehow.
I did my best to fit in at school. Mimicked my classmate’s interactions. Participated in extracurricular activities. At home, I’d help out in the kitchen. Smile appropriately at my father’s jokes. Remember to cry when I grazed a knee.
But I never felt like I belonged in my skin.
My mother said I was just mature for my age. She thought maybe the nightmares had something to do with it.
For me, bedtime was a harrowing journey into a world of tentacles and needlelike teeth that belonged to things that seethed and writhed and waited in the ether. I would often wake up from these terrors with blood thumping in my ears, tangled in sheets thick with sweat and urine.
I was never afraid of the dark, though. Quite the opposite. I complained if my parents left the nightlight on.
I felt safe in the shadows. A sense of belonging.
Despite my growing peculiarities, my parents were always loving and supportive. I was their little miracle baby, they would say.
They had tried for years to have a child. IVF and fertility drugs and then all sorts of alternative therapies. In the end, their wish was granted. They often reminded me — never in any cruel way — that they had gone to great lengths to bring me into this world.
Around the time my mother entered her change of life, I was undergoing my own metamorphosis.
Puberty hit hard.
My limbs seemed to overtake the rest of me, and my face and back were ravaged by acne that was always sore and hot to the touch. It was also when the headaches started.
They ranged from a mild inconvenience to crippling seizures that would incapacitate me for days. Whenever I suggested to my mother that I should see a doctor, she would just smile and tell me in that reassuring tone of hers that, “Everything will be fine, sweetie. Just you wait.”
She was right, of course. She always was. I didn’t discover how right until the morning of my sixteenth birthday.
I remember coming down from my bedroom and shuffling into the kitchen. I half-expected my father to surprise me with a party blower and that goofy grin of his. He loved making a fuss of my birthdays.
Instead, I was met with… nothing. No hugs or kisses. No colourful decorations. No sign of coffee or the traditional birthday pancakes.
I wandered around the house until I found my parents in the living room. They sat together on the couch, clasping hands and greeting me with a cheerless silence. My headache was particularly bad this morning, blurring the edges of my vision, but I could still make out their sullen faces in the early morning gloom.
“What’s going on?” I said. My voice croaked as it struggled to wake up.
“We need to talk, sweetie,” said my mother in a tone she might use to deliver a eulogy.
I took small, deliberate steps towards them, allowing myself time to comprehend what was going on. It didn’t help.
My mother lowered her gaze to the floor. My father put an arm around her and corrected his posture. His eyes were bleary and raw with emotion. They brimmed with a father’s pride. And love. And… something else that lurked underneath and caused the hairs on my arms to bristle.
“We knew this day had to come, son. Your mother and I sacrificed so much to have you in our lives.”
The word sacrificed lingered in the air.
My bones felt like they were vibrating.
“We want you to know that you were worth every moment of the sixteen years given to us.”
The pain in my head was immense. Waves of nausea rolled through me as a mounting pressure pushed at the back of my eyeballs. Thoughts were losing their meaning.
“I don’t understand any of this.”
My mother stifled a sob as she raised her head to look at me. Her face was swollen and red.
“You will, sweetie. It will all make perfect sense. Just you wait.”
She was right, of course. She always was.
I opened my mouth to speak but a sudden spike in pain strangled the words in my throat. My entire body was pulsing. Rippling. It felt as if my head was about to split wide open.
And then it did.
A sharp, wet CRACK followed by a raging torrent as air rushed in and a world of tentacles and needlelike teeth rushed out.
The man and woman on the couch huddled and whimpered.
Their eyes grew large as I loomed over them.
“Happy Birthday, baby,” said the woman.
Something twinged inside of me at the sound of those words, but only for the briefest of moments and then it was gone.
I could no longer contain my excitement as I rushed to open my presents.