Seán Padraic Birnie
Harm to child; childhood trauma; body horror; abuse
Ever since he’d been born, Frankie had seemed different.
He had never cried. Hardly moved. Kelly’s sister had not reserved her judgement. She did not bite her lip – never had. Your kid is creepy, Kel, she said. Your kid is weird. The way he just watches you and that.
It’s like he’s waiting, ain’t it?
The worst thing about it was that Kelly agreed. And this was way before he first sprouted any growths – those didn’t come until later. She’d wonder was something wrong with her. She didn’t seem to love her boy as much as the other parents at the nursery loved theirs. She would watch them, collecting their little ones. The joy on their faces. It was alien to her.
Then she’d see how they got if they came too close to Frankie, uncertain, not wanting to get any closer but not wanting to offend.
Sally was right, it was like Frankie was always watching things, like he was waiting. Waiting for what?
It made her want to hide away. As if she’d needed any other reason for that.
At least Darren didn’t come around anymore, that was one thing. It was hard on your own but it was also easier. He was good for maintenance – that was something. Something that had surprised her.
Frankie had been born three weeks when Daz had first visited his son. He came in all sheepish, hung around awkwardly a little, dodging daggerlike stares from Sal, even held the baby. Then the baby had shat and the panic on his face had induced helpless laughter in Kelly and her sister. Laughter so bad it hurt. Laughter so bad it wasn’t like you were laughing, it was like the laughter was something being done to you, like you were its instrument or some such, being played. The sort you might die of.
Fucking hell, alright, Darren had said. Alright. Then he’d beat his retreat. Didn’t say bye and didn’t come back. Some problems took care of themselves.
At the nursery Frankie troubled everyone. Kelly could see it in their eyes. The other kids wouldn’t really play with him, but they didn’t actively exclude him, either. They just kept their distance. And he kept his. And kept on watching.
Was he behind the other kids his age? Maybe a little. The staff used words like developmental, but he wasn’t ever diagnosed with anything. His first word came late. Everything he did came late, like he had to first watch the other children, then learn it from them, awkward imitation by awkward imitation. But not so late that anyone had any cause to worry. But they did worry. You didn’t need a cause to worry.
Kelly knew that they worried. Kelly worried, too. Kelly had causes.
When she collected him they’d start to say something, hesitate, then stop. A frown would trouble their brow. Something they couldn’t put their finger on. Then they’d smile, and that would be that.
And though he troubled them, he wasn’t troubled. What was one of the words one of them had used – equanimous? Frankie was equanimous. Level. Unperturbed. Nothing upset him. Nothing seemed to excite him, either.
He didn’t get ill. He didn’t get colic, or croup, or coughs, or conjunctivitis, or rashes. He didn’t get anything. He slept like – well, he slept like a baby.
The terrible twos weren’t so terrible for Frankie. Nor were the threes.
The first time she shook Frankie, really shook him, Kelly upset herself before she managed to wring any kind of reaction out of his little body. She’d collapsed against the kitchen wall, holding him, tending him, apologising over and over. But he didn’t mind. Frankie never minded. She was amazed that she hadn’t hurt him. The next day, panicked, she inspected him, turning him over, poring over his body, small for his age but not too small. There was nothing.
Sal called, Kelly let it ring. Sal called again and left a voicemail. Kelly left it unplayed. Sally called around at the flat. Sitting in the gloom of the living room, the curtains drawn, August heatwave boiling the air outside, the sun without clouds a pitiless thing, Kelly rocked Frankie back and forth, her eyes closed, ignoring the rapping, knocks that might have been the impact of hard knuckles on her own skull, shaking her own brain in its fluids.
Kelly? her sister called. Kel? Are you in?
A moment later: Fuck sake.
Kelly whispered to her boy. He didn’t respond. Through tears she smiled at him. He didn’t smile back. He watched her.
She must have noticed that first nubbin the summer before he was due to start school. She didn’t get it checked out, just assumed it would go away. That set the pattern, cast the dye. The health visitor didn’t notice it, though he did that thing that everybody did, started to say something, thought better of it, stopped, smiled. It wasn’t much. Skin was weird. It was probably a wart.
It was not a wart.
She noticed the second wart maybe a week later, adjacent to the first, the first one positioned just below the knuckle of his right index finger, the second below his fuck-you finger.
What was that word – she’d had a thing. Langoliers. No. Ganglions – that was it. She’d had a ganglion, but that had been on her wrist. Like a new bone, but round and soft and floating.
The warts bothered her.
The third, bigger, made her recoil when she found it. She’d been bathing him. She’d been drying his feet, and then her hand brushed it, and her stomach turned, and she flinched back in horror, was nearly a bit sick in her mouth. It was below the knuckle of his big toe.
What was the word, that word they’d used for Sally’s eyes, the way they stuck out – perterburant. Portuberent. Protuberant. That was it.
Sally had had double vision, headaches, corrective surgery, but that was a few years ago now.
The word was protuberant.
So that made three.
She needed to tell someone, but she couldn’t tell anyone. That was a bind.
Pattern set, dye cast.
She held him, rocked him, in the gloom, in the heat as the air broiled outside. He sat quietly next to her as she stared at the wall. He was growing at last, bigger than a toddler now, almost ready for school, but docile. Unperturberant, imperturbable. Exsanguinous. Equanimous. She ignored Sally at the door. She ignored the health visitor at the door. Harried, busy, he rang back once and she ignored that too, then he didn’t come back. If that put a flag against her name, against Frankie’s name, made him targeted – she knew the words they used: thought of crosshairs, bull’s eyes, the beam of accusatory light cast from a police helicopter – nothing seemed to come of it. Local services were s t r e t c h e d.
No one called back.
She kept him home from nursery and they never called back.
One day she answered the door to Sally, though. She had Frankie wrapped up because she didn’t want to see the nubbins, which made it safe, though they were bigger than nubbins now.
What the fuck’s wrong with you?
I’ve not been well.
Well? You can’t answer your phone, can’t answer the door? You’re that unwell?
Sally looked around, scowled.
God it’s dark in here. Why don’t you open the curtains?
Sally threw open the curtains; Kelly recoiled.
Laughing: Are you a vampire now?
Kelly didn’t answer.
How’s my little nephew doing?
Sally nodded. Frankie watched her.
Sally turned away.
Mum’s been worried, she said, sniffing.
That’s news to me.
We’ve all been worried.
What’s up, Kel?
Kelly sighed, sat back.
Here, let me sit next to him. Hello, Frankie—
We’re okay. I’ve just not been feeling great is all.
He starts school in September. How the time flies.
That fucking place.
Then Sally laughed.
Do you remember Becky Small, Mr Harding’s niece?
Kelly found herself laughing, too.
That kid was weird.
Kelly nodded, her laughter fading.
Writing her name in shit on the bog walls. For fuck’s sake.
Kelly nodded, remembering. Remembering how they’d picked on Becky Small. Her weird scrunched red little face, like she’d always been crying when she hadn’t, or like she’d tried to eat her own face and had almost succeeded. Kelly felt it in her cheeks: something like shame. Or just shame, which was a thing like nothing else. She’d not thought of Becky Small in years. Where was she now? What happened to the Becky Smalls of the world?
Sally laughed. Sally wasn’t ashamed.
Dazzer been round?
Probably for the best.
I heard he…
He’s going out with Lauren Scott now. So I heard.
I didn’t know.
She didn’t know why she was bothered. She didn’t want anything to do with him. But it bothered her.
Time for his nap, said Kelly, standing. I need a lie down, too.
You need some sun on your face.
Sally thought for a moment.
Why don’t you let mum look after him tonight? she said, very carefully. She’d love to, you know. She’ll be shocked by how much he’s grown. Come out for drinks with me and Kirsty.
I am not letting that woman look after my son, Sally.
Sally looked at her. Frowned. Shrugged. Fair enough.
Yes it’s fair enough.
Nodding: I know.
We need some rest.
Okay, okay. I’m going.
Sally sniffed again.
When Kelly shut the door she doublelocked it, then in the living room yanked the curtains shut.
Next day she noticed how his skin was peeling.
Near the nubbins, which had grown. She forced herself to study them. Had they grown? Were they cancerous?
Oh God, she thought. Why hadn’t she thought of cancer? It hadn’t even occurred to her.
She should get him seen, she thought. She knew that. But if she got him seen about it now, questions would follow, principally: why had she not got it seen before? Why the delay?
Delays could be fatal.
Their father, for instance, Frankie’s Grampa. His bowels. Blood in his stools. Gone before forty.
They were more like mushrooms. Paler than the surrounding flesh, and soft, but if you pressed them – which she made herself do, wincing, steeling her stomach, watching Frankie’s expressionless face for any expression of pain – you felt something like ligaments maybe, like soft bones, fish bones, forming, as yet unformed.
She tilted her head, studied the nubbins from a different angle.
Polyps, she thought. Was that a word?
What are they, Frank? she asked him.
She had been trying to talk to him some more. Encourage him to talk. Make them sound normal. Maybe if they sounded normal they’d start to feel it. Or she would. Pray, as her mum had said, years ago, and belief shall follow. But she never had believed. And she didn’t believe it now. Talk was a charade. It felt unnatural.
Frankie watched her.
What are they? Kelly asked. Knuckles?
Once she’d said it she couldn’t help but think it. And once she thought it, she couldn’t think of anything else.
Then he got a new one, to the left of his nose. That couldn’t be any extra knuckle. It looked like – Christ.
And the way it grew, quicker than the others.
Kelly, despondent, wept on the sofa.
Frankie, sitting at the dining table, watched on, unmoved.
And so this was how she dealt with it, for a while: by not dealing with it. Pattern cast, dye set, etc. She kept him swaddled. He was too big to be swaddled, it was too hot to be swaddled, but Frankie didn’t give a shit either way.
As the one on his face grew, mushroomlike, but bony, she simply decided not to look at it. Not to look at him. If she didn’t see it, perhaps it would disappear.
Bony mushrooms, there was a thought.
Polyps, she thought, tasting the word.
It did not disappear.
From the corner of her eye she saw it – what? Twitching? Rabbitlike.
From the corner of her eye she saw it twitching.
That was when she started finding flakes of skin about the flat. Flakes the size of cornflakes. Sometimes bigger. Doritos. Pringles. Thicker. Piles of it. His skin wasn’t peeling now. This wasn’t just peeling. He was – she thought, frowning – shedding.
In the gloom, Kelly cried. She found the health visitor’s number on her phone, stared at it for a while.
Stared at it and then pressed it, but cancelled the call before it could ring, powered the device down, chucked it across the room, winced at the noise it made as it landed. Later when she picked it up she’d find its screen shattered, notifications ballooning underneath the damage, missed calls from Sal, Daz, even her mum.
Later there came a knock at the door. When she didn’t answer, a man’s voice called through the letterbox. She couldn’t make out the words. She looked out the window, saw his van, answered the door, signed for the package. Something Daz had paid for: Frankie’s new school uniform, its red sweater with the fish logo of the school, ready for the new year, new school, new friends, a size Extra Small. She held it up and thought it was a good size too big, but there’d been no option for Extra-Extra Small.
Like Becky Small, thought Kelly, feeling an old shame, thinking old thoughts.
Now something was happening. He was doing something. Or something was being done to him.
Kelly watched, aghast, unable to move.
She watched, agog, unable to think.
Frankie, unperturbed, imperturbable, equanimous, watched back.
The new knuckles had started to move.
Now bigger chunks of his skin began to fall away. And not just skin, it seemed. Bigger chunks of flesh.
Her stomach turning, churning, she studied the chunks, dried out like old papier-mâché, she thought, remembering childhood projects, things to make, just like papier-mâché. A boy in their class had made a papier-mâché model of Tracey Island, she remembered, he’d seen it on Blue Peter, brought it into school, full of idiot pride, and the idiot teacher had put it up on display. Later, when no one was around, Sally had plunged a knife into one of its grassy hills, left it there, daggerlike, a fuck-you finger emerging from the painted knoll, then when Mr Harding had solemnly addressed this scandalous act of mindless violence before their singing assembly the next day, Kelly, full of terrible knowledge, had felt fit to burst, as if the information had to leak out of her somehow, squirt out or seep out, and was surely smeared on her face like so much shit on a toilet wall, as if the guilt was hers, as if knowing it made her guilty, too. Sal was her older sister. Meanwhile Sally muffled laughter, one hand clasped to her mouth.
One hand clasped to her mouth, wanting to vomit or scream, Kelly studied the chunks. From the corner of her eye she knew that Frankie was moving, shifting where he lay up on the sofa, babylike again. For the first time in his life he appeared actually animated.
She kicked the flakes and chunks away, swept them under the sofa, turned to her son, and finally allowed herself to see the other growths, beneath his ears and at his elbow, at his hips and at his groin. He lay naked, having wriggled free of his clothes, and she saw his other growths, neither nubbins nor warts nor polyps nor mushrooms nor barnacles, his body barnacled with other growths.
His eyes had rolled back.
She watched, unable to move, unable to think, as he wriggled to the edge of the sofa, from which after a moment with a strange gurning heave he pulled himself to the floor. She winced as he landed but dared not approach.
Something was happening. Something. He was doing something, or something was being done to him.
Now Frankie was dragging himself across the floor. Little bits of his papier-mâché flesh fell away. She thought of meat, lamb cooked perfectly, falling from the bone. His legs had ceased to work but kicked uselessly. Through the whites of his eyes he watched her as he moved. At last he reached the table, where he stopped.
She saw the rip on his face. His skin, gone pale, become paper, seemed impossibly dry. Like a papier-mâché doll, she thought. And the rip. The tear in the face of the doll.
He turned away from her, struggling to the table’s leg, against which he began to rub his face, softly at first, weakly, and then with gathering strength, digging the leg of the table into the dry wound on his face. She saw his hands, tearing at the knuckles. She saw the row of new knuckles beneath the tear, the bones visible through skin like crêpe paper, beginning to rotate, the muscles of new small appendages that only might have been fingers lengthen and flex.
Papier-mâché fell away.
He was shaking it off, she saw. What was the word. There was a word she knew: he was slowing it off. Slough. That was it. He was sloughing it off.
He was shedding.
The boy, Frankie, if that was its name, if that was the word, renewed, naked, lay back in the mess of its old skin, gleaming in its newness. Its new flesh, a pale grey, slightly greasy, soft and covered with fine down, seemed to Kelly somehow shockingly bare, raw, as if layers of skin had been peeled back, nerves exposed to the air. Which, in a manner of speaking, she supposed was the case.
It lay, exposed, exhausted. The papier-mâché hunk of its old jaw lay like a grin on the carpet. She thought of satsumas and oranges and clementines, peeled neatly in a single piece. His old skin lay in several pieces: here the tube of an arm, there the pockets of his toes. And the hunk of a grin, grinning.
Kelly stared, horrified but fascinated. What was the word. She had no word.
There were no words.
Another word came to mind: pride. Kelly stared at her son.
It was beautiful, in its new skin.
He was beautiful. She loved him.
She would let him sleep for a while. He needed it. Then he could try on his new school uniform, Extra Small, now at least another size too big.
For now Frankie lay, watching his mother, equanimous, waiting for her to pick him up from the floor. ∎
Seán Padraic Birnie is a writer from Brighton. His debut collection of short stories, I Would Haunt You If I Could, was published by Undertow Publications in 2021. His work has appeared in venues such as Black Static, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Best British Short Stories, The Dark, and ergot. He is on Twitter and on Mastodon at @email@example.com. For more info, see: seanbirnie.com
Become a member of the IZ Digital Ko-fi for exclusive epubs, previews, classic Mutant Popcorn film essays by Nick Lowe, and an invite to the IZ Digital Discord server. Or just buy IZ a digital coffee/tea/raktajino – it is hugely appreciated.
You can also subscribe to the bimonthly print Interzone and get even more amazing writing delivered directly to you. Postage free, planetwide.
Reader memberships and subscriptions are the lifeblood of independent, small press magazines like IZ Digital and Interzone – thanks for reading, and supporting!