The moment that you meet your son is not one that you will forget easily. He is far more beautiful than you could’ve possibly imagined. Finally, you know that it has been worth all the paperwork and all the painful years of trying and failing and trying again.
He lifts a chubby finger to grasp your own with an accompanying gurgle. You smile down at him, entranced, and a little sad that Mark couldn’t make it out of work to experience this moment with you.
The child’s eyes are wide and blue. You faintly remember Mark saying something about how all babies start off with blue eyes and develop their adult colours later (he tends to go on a bit when he’s excited), but you hope that your son’s eyes will retain this lovely hue.
The baby blinks and, for a moment, his irises burn a deep black. You flinch and he startles in your arms, face scrunching up. You hurriedly start to rock him the way that the nurses showed you. The movement is just enough to soothe him, thankfully. He blinks again and lets out a small, adorable yawn, eyes no longer dark.
You sit down, relief overcoming your prior panic. You’re just tired, you decide.
You name him Aaron.
When Aaron is six years old you decide to homeschool him. Mark disapproves but he can’t change your mind. You fight about tuition fees and private schools and places that will “cater to his needs” but in the end you win. Mark claims, in an incredibly sulky tone, that he is not sulking when you next bring up the topic of choosing a tutor.
Maria is the perfect choice. She’s affordable, kind hearted and knowledgeable. Most importantly, she’s the only tutor you’ve found who is able to deal with Aaron’s tantrums. It is a talent that few people, including Mark, seem to possess.
You get on well with her, better than you’ve been getting on with Mark lately. You spend more time together than you’ve ever had the chance to with him, and you are able to work on your laptop while she works with Aaron in the room next door. You enjoy hearing laughter instead of screams for a change.
Over time, the walls between you seem to disappear until you and Maria are working side by side, albeit on entirely different tasks. If her discreet glances linger upon you, you do not protest. You are flattered by the attention and charmed by her soft smiles; the glances are harmless enough and they hardly seem to inhibit her prowess.
Maria starts to work longer hours, spending more and more time with Aaron. And you. Often, she is still in the house when Mark returns from work. He never greets her with more than a sharp, perfunctory nod.
The abruptness of the greeting frustrates you, but when you ask him about it he simply gets angry, angrier than you’ve ever seen him before. The anger blunts his words and your tongue sharpens in return. You do not understand what he is saying but his actions speak louder than stunted sentences when he snatches your phone and tries to delete Maria’s number.
A whimper comes from the kitchen door as your voice reaches fever pitch. You are ashamed to realise that Aaron has witnessed the entire exchange.
You rush over to him with guilt in your eyes, whispering what you hope are comforting words as you pull the crying child into your arms. He buries his head on your shoulder.
When you turn back to face Mark you are not sure what to make of his expression. His face is pale and his hands are shaking. The vindictive part of you is pleased. He should feel bad. You retrieve your phone and storm out of the kitchen, too tired and angry to listen to whatever he has left to say.
When you put Aaron to bed he asks why daddy is scared of him. Your heart breaks. You assure him that that is not the case but make a mental note to sit down with Mark and coax some less heated answers out of him.
You check your phone once Aaron is fast asleep and note, with some irritation, that Mark managed to succeed in deleting Maria’s number. Your grip on the phone tightens and you clutch it to your chest. It doesn’t matter. You have the number memorised anyway.
When you slip into bed that night, Mark is apologetic and embarrassed. His hands reach for you but his words don’t ring true. You tell him what Aaron told you. He doesn’t deny the accusation and that frightens you more than anything else.
You fall uncharacteristically silent. You can tell how much it unnerves Mark by the speed of his babbling. He doesn’t say anything of substance but the delivery of his speech tells you more than the words themselves ever could.
You both stay up late talking. By the morning you have come to a reluctant agreement. He will try harder if, and only if, Maria goes.
The kiss Mark presses to your lips is grateful and he leaves the house with a promise to speak to his boss about reducing his work hours. It is not the first time he has made that promise, but you want to believe him.
Maria arrives on the dot of nine like clockwork, as always. She greets you and starts to set up beside you on the living room table, unpacking a set of brand new acrylic paints.
Aaron squeals in excitement. He bounces around the room like a hyperactive tennis ball and you distract yourself with the task of trying to calm him down enough to be receptive to any form of learning. You know that it’s a pointless task, given what you promised to do today, but you carry it out all the same. Maria offers you a grateful smile when you finally get Aaron to sit, and you’re caught offguard by its beauty. You start to understand Mark’s concern a little better.
Guilt twinges in the pit of your stomach as you lure Maria into the kitchen with the promise of coffee. You carefully position yourself on the opposite side of the room and make sure to close the door when you tell her that you have to talk, but you don’t know what to say.
The silence stretches out between you. Surprisingly, it’s not awkward. You have become so accustomed to her presence that it is almost as if you could never feel awkward with her, but you still can’t get the words out. She looks sad but not surprised. You wonder if she predicted this.
You open and close your mouth a few times. Maria’s eyes are fixed intently on yours, ready and waiting. They are the same shade of blue as Aaron’s were as a baby and you wonder why you never noticed them before. They’re achingly lovely.
When it becomes clear that you aren’t going to say anything anytime soon, Maria sighs. Her eyes flash black and, suddenly, you can’t move.
You’ve seen those eyes before. They’re the eyes that Aaron flashed at you as baby; the eyes he uses when he’s angry, or when he thinks that you’re not looking. They’re the eyes that you usually pass off as a figment of your imagination or a trick of the light, no matter how well-lit the room is; they possess the darkness that you ignore out of your desperation to be a good parent, to love your child despite the lurking sense of unease.
Often those eyes made you wonder if you were losing your mind, but now the answer is painfully clear to you. You haven’t been imagining it; the darkness has always been there. It’s genetic.
Maria stalks towards you, her steps slow, calculated and far more refined in nature than Aaron’s movements have ever been. You know that you should move but you are frozen, trapped by the familiarity of her red hair and slender nose. How could you not have seen it before?
You belatedly realise that she is talking to you but you struggle to focus on her words, your mind still grappling with realisation.
Maria stands directly in front of you now. There is less than three inches of space between her face and yours. She’s no longer talking.
Her hand gently touches your arm and drifts upwards until it comes to rest upon your shoulder. You remain perfectly still, watching her. Ever so slowly, she strokes your cheek.
“Thank you for taking care of him,” she says.
Something within you breaks at the look on her face and you can move again. You place your hand over hers and nod.
Behind you, the door opens and Aaron wanders into the kitchen, a slightly puzzled look on his face. Part of you wonders how long you’ve been standing there for.
Maria’s hand drops away from your face and she turns to focus on Aaron, crouching down to match his height. Her eyes flash black again but the sight no longer startles you; you are more surprised by Aaron’s subsequent gasp of delight. You wonder why she hid herself for so long.
Maria smiles at Aaron and when she turns to face you again there are tears in her dark eyes. She holds out a hand to him and he grasps it, a wide grin on his round face.
Both their eyes are black now. As you watch, the colour extends beyond their irises, stretching into their veins and gathering in their hair. The redness of their natural roots is forced out. It streams through their arms and bubbles up into their hands to form blood red talons. Their feet grow in length and size, metamorphosing into silver claws.
The darkness of their eyes is solid but the colour fades to a translucent black as it spreads across their skin, greying their features. Aaron and Maria look like shadows by the time the transformation is complete. They hang in the air like ghosts.
You reach out, wondering if you are still able to touch them, but Maria shies away from your fingers. You can still make out the creases of an expression on her semi-transparent face. She looks - scared?
“Please?” you ask.
Maria shakes her head but Aaron reaches up to you quite happily with his free hand/claw, clearly asking for a cuddle.
You dip down and gather him into your arms. His talons do not appear to be as sharp as Maria’s but you are careful to avoid them nonetheless. Aaron lets go of her hand as you hug him and his skin starts to revert to its usual, opaque state, metamorphosing back into a human form. You hardly notice.
You don’t know how long you stay like that for, simply holding him, but you don’t want it to end. Maria’s words of thanks had sounded unnervingly final. However, Aaron eventually starts to wriggle and you are forced to release him.
You straighten up to see Maria staring at you, head tilted to one side. She watches you carefully as she takes Aaron’s hand into her own again but you simply smile. Aaron transforms back into whatever it is that he - no, they - are, and your smile does not waver.
Maria surveys you a little uncertainly but begins to stride towards the door, Aaron trotting along behind her. The movement spurs you into action. He’s your son.
You lurch forward. You try to catch hold of Maria’s wrist but your hand goes straight through it instead. You recoil, trying and failing to hide your alarm.
“Wait!” you cry desperately.
Maria turns to look at you and you shudder at the intensity of her gaze. Her eyes rake up and down your body with predatory precision. You can tell that she’s assessing you, trying to work out if you pose a threat. You know that you have to tread carefully, but you stand your ground.
“Take me with you.”