Playing Pretend
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My condition itself has never bothered me on its own.

I was always aware of it on some level though, and of the fact that I needed to hide it. Even before I learned I might not be the original "Cordelia Mayer". It must've been some deep-rooted instinct that evolved over countless generations to keep me safe. I don’t remember ever directly wishing I wasn’t like this, but I do remember wishing I was better at pretending I wasn’t. Everyone else seemed to fit together so easily and I was an extra piece that was too warped to snap together with anything else. So I hung back and pretended to be a cool mysterious figure in my light-up shoes that just didn’t WANT to talk to anyone else.

Even early on when I still just seemed sickly to her, my mother took every opportunity to get me out of the house. I think before she admitted it to herself she could still sort of tell something was wrong with her baby. I'm sure her instincts had evolved over generations to keep her safe too. Brood parasites are still parasites no matter how you try and sugarcoat it. I've tried to make amends; I've shed my mother's name and left her alone. But I can't bring her daughter back and I refuse to blame myself any longer. Nothing in nature is perfectly moral.

My summers were never spent at home, it was always at some catholic day camp. She wanted to drive the devil out of me. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. First I was dropped off, then it was morning mass, they’d take us on a bus to someplace fun, we’d go back to learn more about Jesus, and finally, we’d go home. My mother always dropped me off early so I had some time to play on my own. There was a lake at the base of the hill the church sat on and I spent a lot of time trying to catch tadpoles with my bare hands and chewing on my crucifix necklace where the supervisors couldn't yell at me for it. I was convinced I was developing a new innovative technique for both that would be hailed for centuries.

One day, a kid with a runny nose and unkempt curly hair sauntered up and poked me on the back. He told me to be careful then pointed out a vague floating shape in the lake. He said it was a kelpie and showed me a picture in a well-loved paperback bestiary for comparison.

At that moment I believed him with every ounce of my being and I needed to know more.

He was Jacob Ezekiel Conners, a name he recited in full with great confidence in spite of his lisp each time he was asked. We sat next to each other in the back of the church during the service and he taught me everything he knew about monsters; at least until one of the supervisors took away his book and made us sit on opposite sides of the pew.

On the bus ride to the park, he bragged that he could fall asleep with his eyes open then spent 15 minutes pretending to do so and desperately trying to hold in laughter while I whispered inane poop jokes to prove he was still awake. We were children and children laugh easily, especially when they’re trying not to.

Having monsters pointed out to me became a daily ritual. Around the middle of the summer, my mother started to believe her suspicions so I was spending more and more time away from her and with my grandparents. My new friend's stories were a welcome distraction. Sometimes it was off in the distance, sometimes it was one of the supervisors or another child hiding in plain sight. It was fun to hear his explanations; they were always thought out and imaginative. The journal in the back of his book was full to the brim with extra computer paper notes of discoveries and theories he'd come up with from his observations. He was an expert on monsters but never pointed out what was wrong with me. I believed it was out of respect.

Eventually, during a lunch break on a hike, he discovered a moss-covered petrified spine that once belonged to a great dragon. We sat in the grass under a large tree admiring the size of the beast it must've once belonged to. For the first time, I pointed something out to him. I told him about my condition and he stared with wonder in his eyes and a smile stretched across his face. He didn't ask for proof or for me to show him anything fantastical. He just believed me and stated with quite some pride that he'd known the whole time… but couldn't answer when I teasingly questioned him about what specifically I was. At that point, even I did not yet know the name for it.

Still, that was the first time I'd ever stopped pretending and verbally acknowledged I was different.

Once we'd stopped laughing, I asked him to pinky promise never to tell anyone. He scoffed and proclaimed that a pinky promise was for babies and wasn't serious enough business for this. So he stood up, spit in his hand, and offered it to me as he'd seen in a movie. I wrinkled my nose and didn't have to say anything else for him to wipe it off on the already soggy grass-stained seat of his pants. He took my pinky and solemnly swore not to tell anyone. He kept that promise.

For the rest of the summer, we were best friends exploring the world of the strange and unusual. After that, I never saw him again.

I've kept my love for and curiosity about the peculiar that Jacob Ezekiel Conners instilled in me. Looking back after learning more, the “kelpie” he warned me about was nothing but an old log and the bestiary had a $3.99 barcode on the back, but I don’t think that was the part that really mattered. What did was that I learned there are a lot of people in the world like Jacob Ezekiel Conners.

A lot of people like me.

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