"So, have you told him yet?"
"Told him what?” I replied, batting my eyelashes.
"Don't be coy. Have you told him you're pregnant yet?"
I gasped dramatically, smiled and took a drawn-out sip of my wine. Cassie was one of those women who always saw peoples' bullshit and always called them out for it. And yet she was simultaneously the sweetest, most giving creature on the planet. She once drove 600 miles from Seattle to Paradise Valley, NV to save me while she was on a business trip pitching her new medical, gluten-free, vegan cupcakes to a major CBD edible company. She had prepared for a month to give that pitch. But when I told her I was stranded in the middle of bumfuck-no-where with a broken-down Mercury Couger and no tow truck in sight, she immediately left her meeting and headed my way. Turns out the $300 I paid for the sweet 1960s sports car in Vegas was in fact too good of a deal.
"What gave me away?" I smiled and bit into the questionable-looking deviled egg that Suzanne from down the street brought. That woman dressed like at any point a modeling recruiter could be lurking around the corner just waiting to discover her. But I swear she cooked blindfolded. There legitimately appeared to be cat food in last year's Christmas jello.
"Oh I don't know, maybe the grape juice in your wine glass and the oversized harem pants instead of your usual too-short-for-my-taste floral summer dress." Cassie aggressively took a large swig of her wine and half-jokingly slammed the glass down on the small wicker coffee table.
"Yeah, I guess I am not trying too hard to hide it at this point. Too bad Spencer wouldn't notice even if I threw the damn pregnancy test at his face." I chuckled but Cassie raised her eyebrows and peered over her glasses. Uh oh. The serious look.
"At this point? How far along are you, Senai?"
I squirmed in my seat. I didn't like keeping things from Cassie but this one was just too big of a secret. When Ella turned two, Spencer and I had discussed having a second child but we ultimately decided it was best to limit ourselves to one tiny human to raise. I had experienced intense postpartum depression staying home with Ella for the first 15 months of her life. We were able to put her in daycare after that and I was free to paint again. It was torturous feeling such an intense need to create but also feeling too emotionally exhausted to do more than brush my teeth and pass out at the end of every day after she finally fell asleep.
We did manage to accidentally get pregnant when Ella was 11 months old, but the baby didn't make it passed the first trimester. It happened the night before we were to announce the big news to our friends and family. Eight weeks and two days. After that, I knew I couldn't handle possibly having another miscarriage or actually having the kid and feeling even more depressed than I was before. But when I found out about this particular little peanut growing inside of me, something changed. It's like a light when on in my head and suddenly I wanted to be a mother to another child. I had a strong feeling that Cassie was going to try and talk me out of keeping it. And I just couldn't explain to her what was going on in my heart. I also knew I wouldn't be able to keep it a secret from her for very long.
"I am twelve weeks today." I averted eye contact and looked over at Spencer. He was standing behind the grill, smiling, and probably telling one of his semi-dramatic stories about his time living in a houseboat off the coast of Australia. Let it go, Spence. It was 10 years ago. In his sky blue polo, perfectly manicured beard and brand new, hipster Oakley sunglasses, he looked like next week's GQ cover model. God am I lucky.
"It's been three months??" Exasperated, she slapped both of her cheeks, mirroring the dramatic actresses in the 1960 horror films who just discovered the bad guy standing right in front of them.
“Well, I mean, I've technically only known for 3 wee—"
"Three weeks?! You've known three weeks and you didn't tell me?? What the actual fuck, Nai?" Nai was the nickname she had given me in third grade when we had gained the courage to get on the ferris wheel together at the summer fair in Port Townsend where we grew up. The Port, as we fondly called it, is a tiny-ass town 50 miles northwest of Seattle nestled in the trees at the tip of the Olympic peninsula. We had been too chicken to get on the ferris wheel the summer before, so we had been building ourselves up for a whole year—and it was go-time. We climbed into the seat, lowered the bar, and held our breath as we made our way up. We reached the top and the ferris wheel stopped suddenly, rocking the carriage wildly back and forth. We looked at each other, let out a huge scream and fell into giggles. As we made our descent, Cassie sighed and rested her head on my shoulder. "This was the best, Nai."
I put my hand on hers and with total sincerity, "Cas I wanted to tell you so many times but I just couldn't."
Cassie pulled her hand away from mine and opened her mouth to protest but stopped all of a sudden. She tilted her head, still staring past me in the yard. "Senai, who, or what, is that?" The look of disturbed confusion in her face shook me. “I thought you told Spencer no clowns?”
I looked over my shoulder towards my daughter and her friends. All of the children were huddled around a creature of about 7 feet tall. The beast of a man was dressed in a tattered, dirty, red and white clown suit. It looked extremely weathered and made out of a thick, cotton material. He looked like he was from an entirely different decade. The 40s maybe? His pants sagged heavily over oddly shiny, black combat boots. The laces were missing and the tongues were lifted almost entirely out of both shoes. What appeared to be a blood-soaked wife-beater tank top revealed itself within the open patches of missing clown jacket. His head was abnormally long and completely bald save for a purple tuft of hair on top and two lime green sprouts above each of his ears. He was folding a dark purple balloon into a dog for Ella as she excitedly watched, her sweet newly 9-year-old face a mere three inches from his grotesque belly.
I looked around and with Spencer nowhere to be found, I shakily got up from the patio chair and made my approach towards the terrifying clown playing with my firstborn child.
When I found myself standing behind the creature, I took a huge breath, puffed out my chest, and prepared to have a very serious conversation with the weirdo hanging out uninvited at my kid’s birthday party. I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around painfully slowly. I was suddenly staring into a black void where this man’s face should have been. I gasped and took a step back, simultaneously reaching for Ella’s hand. “Baby come with me,” I whispered shakily. Ella pulled against my hand and I looked down to discover another empty void. I shrieked and looked around. Everyone at the party had stopped their interactions and was staring at me through their black nothingness.
Someone grabbed me by the shoulder and whipped me around. It was Spencer, handsome face intact. “Wake up, Senai.”
“Spence, what is go—“ I started with salty tears forming in my eyes.
He grabbed me by the shoulders. “Wake up, Senai!” He was shaking me now and screaming, “Wake up! Wake up! WAKE UP!”
Everything went black.
“What the hell was that?” A man’s voice rang in my ears. He sounded middle-aged and a bit nasally. His voice had a strung-out weariness to it.
“Some sort of glitch in the program?” A younger-sounding woman’s voice responded, sounding a bit bored.
“That’s impossible. I cleaned the files this morning myself. There’s no reason she should have any sort of reaction or skip from the program upload.”
As the room came more into focus, I began to try and sit up. But I was paralyzed. I looked down at my uncooperative limbs and what I discovered shook me to my core.
“Maybe it’s a virus.” The woman shrugged as she tapped away on a tablet.
With a mad look in his eyes, the man shushed the woman and in a low voice he hissed, “Have you lost your mind? If they even thought that someone was able to hack into our system—you know, the one that we built, they would have us ‘taken care of’ within twenty-four hours. I had to assure Captain McGowan a hundred different times that a data breech was impossible. If the public found out about what we are doing in here, there would be absolute chaos.”
My eyes found their way to my midsection. Where a small bump had just lived, now existed no flesh at all. My smooth cocoa skin was replaced with a matte silver metal plate mostly covering thick wires running throughout my entire body.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. Jeesh. I’m sure it’s fine. She seems okay now,” the woman murmured.
They both turned and looked down at me. I met their gazes with equal parts confusion and anger. Where the fuck was I? What happened to my baby? What happened to my body??
Before I could demand answers from these strangers, the woman tapped one last time on her tablet and I suddenly felt as if I was falling backwards out of my body.
Then my eyes met the darkness once more.