The only thing I ever wanted was to be a published author, and the year it finally happened was when my life ended and Wesley Toerrenshell’s began. It was the second time I made an acquaintance with Death.
The first time was in 1990, shortly after my twelfth birthday. It had started with the cramps.
That year, I developed abdominal pain. At first, it wasn’t much different than a side stitch. But, as time passed, it got worse. In a short period of time, it became this intense deep stabbing pain under my ribs, like a knife stuck in there. Sometimes, it would give me trouble sitting. Other times, leaning in certain directions would provoke it. It got so bad that even using the washroom was getting difficult. And it got more frequent. Instead of occurring once a month, it was once a week. Then once a day.
One morning, when my parents found me lying in bed, clutching my stomach and screaming for mercy as the pain ran its course, my father turned to my mom and said, “That’s enough of this, enough.” There were specialists, x-rays, and a scheduled surgery.
I don’t have much memory of the day of the operation, except that I had just found out I won an award at school for a short story I had written about the value of human life. My teacher always liked my stories, but she was so impressed by that one she submitted it to the Toronto Public Library’s Young Voices magazine, and, to my astonishment, it was selected out of five-hundred other submissions to be featured in the publication. The editors wrote in a letter to me that it was a remarkably mature piece and I should consider pursuing a career in writing. I was so overjoyed that I could almost tolerate that hot pain in my gut.
My mother could fill in the rest of what happened. She could tell you about how I had come running home from school that day, with my oversized backpack swaying back and forth as I waved the certificate over my head, calling ‘Mom’ repeatedly—and how when she opened the front door she found me on the ground, my entire body convulsing in a puddle of my own vomit.
I was immediately taken to the hospital, and instead of a surgery scheduled for just later in the week, my condition was deemed life-threatening and the operation would have to be done that day.
They brought in the best surgeon in the province, and he had showed my parents the x-rays. The doctor had circled a vague oblong blotch just below my ribs in red marker. He was very concerned and asked why nobody had tried to operate sooner, why the scans and treatments had taken so long, and how whoever we had seen previously certainly didn’t understand the situation. My dad would tell that part of the story for years to come, any time we had guests over, working it into his usual incompetence-of-the-government rants.
But apparently it was the nick of time. The surgeon said that the sudden onset of cramps coupled with the urinary problems and high fever meant that, if it was what he thought it was, it was still small and hopefully harmless.
What they discovered during the operation was fully documented. That surgeon was the first one to see it.
They had opened my back up and pulled apart the oblique muscles. Initially, it appeared as a grapefruit-sized hunk of flesh. They stretched the opening a little wider and cleared the blood away, and in doing this they revealed something I don’t think you should ever find inside of a twelve-year-old boy’s body.
It was what appeared to be a human fetus, lodged into some organs and wrapped around my spinal cord with parts of it fused to the bone.
The next thing they saw caused the circulating nurse to faint. They had adjusted the examination lights and, after lifting another muscle, the surgeon shined an LED flashlight at it.
It had a tiny mouth and eyes, glossy black-bead eyes. It looked like it was trying to blink.
The surgeon famously said: “Sweet dear Jesus, if this is Earth then there sure as Hell better be a Heaven.” Apparently the nurse who fainted had quit the medical field altogether after that. It was the blinking—that forbidden sight of an infant clinging to life. That’s what must have done it.
The rest of the operation went fairly quickly; only thirty-one minutes. I’m sure I don’t need to describe details, but ultimately they were able to remove the whole thing intact. They were confident that doing so wouldn’t cause permanent damage to my body. They were right about that.
Later, amid the countless clicks and flashes of cameras, the doctor explained on the news: “What we saw here is something very rare, and the result of a pregnancy that originally started as twins. We confirmed this by looking at records of the mother’s earliest ultrasounds. One of the embryos more than likely overtook the other during the first trimester, very early on. It happens more often than people might think—one of them dies in utero and is completely reabsorbed by the other. But our patient was born with the remains still inside, so it was only a partial absorption, which resulted in what is called fetus in futu, or a parasitic twin. Whatever caused its sudden growth to start up again after years of dormancy, I cannot say. We’ve collected samples and data of everything we could. We definitely want to look into this case further, document our findings and study it, so that the medical field can be better prepared in the future. That’s all we know at this time. Thank you—thank you ...”
I recovered soon enough, after much rest and a bit of rehabilitation. After the doctors and important people got all the data they could possibly get from me—and the thing they took out of me—I was released. To my great relief, the cramps were completely gone. Since I was on anesthesia and painkillers very often, the one thing that stands out most for me is a giant bag of Skittles that my friend Sarah from school had sent me. I only ate the yellow ones.
When I finally got to go back home, our phone was off the hook with calls from Weekly Canadian News and all the other tabloids that wanted a photo of me and the ‘aberration’. My parents were pretty reserved folk and somehow they never let any of them get anything.
Now, if you know about orthodox Catholics, or at least the Catholics I was raised by, then you know that they do not believe in abortion. Of any kind. No exceptions.
So my parents, fervent in their belief that all of God’s creations were precious, and disheartened to learn about a child lost, had requested to keep the extracted infant. They even named it.
It was given to us in a large glass jar, and my parents placed it atop our mantle in the living room, along with ‘Sympathy for Your Loss’ and ‘God is With You’ cards. It was basically how we might have treated an urn, except much less elegant-looking.
We had that jar there for a good while, despite my protests. It irritated my father the most when I complained about it; he was the stricter of the two, but maybe it was more so because he could see how much it saddened my mom. It had been her idea to keep it. She considered it a kind of homage. A good gesture.
Regardless, you can imagine how much it disturbed my younger self.
For weeks I refused to sit at the dinner table, with that thing there while we ate. I tried to, once, but at that time we had tons of leftover lasagna that had to be eaten and I simply couldn’t stand it.
I remember one night waking up from my sleep with a dry mouth and going to the kitchen for a glass of water. I turned the light on and saw that jar in there, my preserved sibling, suspended motionless in a sickly greenish fluid. Its small eyelids were closed, and its tiny arms and legs were curled up against its chest. Parts of the skin on its backside were tattered, from where it had been removed from me. It was small, but its presence took up the entire room.
I got my glass of water and made my way back. When I passed by the jar again, I froze.
The miniature child was staring right at me with those solid black-bead eyes.
My glass of water clattered against the hardwood floor and I started shouting for my parents. When my dad got downstairs and learned what the problem was, he pointed his finger and warned me I was being ridiculous, that it was probably just something to do with the formalin. But I wouldn’t let it go. He knew I never like it being there, and he started scolding me, accusing me of making up weird explanations so that we’d have a reason to get rid of it. My mom came down too. Then there was a big fuss about the whole thing, about how I stopped eating with them, and about how I was being insensitive. They told me that it was my brother in that jar and that I should learn to respect it like family—because it was family. Something about that really upset me. I started yelling. I asked them why it had to be in the house. They told me exactly why, citing the Bible. I thought about the story I wrote, and then started hurling accusations of their God who would create life and then kill it and almost kill me. That really got a fire going. That heat would linger for years to come.
Even though that argument ended with my mother crying, and my father sending me back to bed, I guess they eventually saw the greater good.
The next week my father buried the jar in the backyard, mumbling to himself the entire time. He put it in a small wooden casket, and then put up a headstone. Under the name it read:
Before you formed I knew you,
Before you were born I set you apart.
For a few years after that, things were better. ‘Better’ in the sense that at least I could bring myself to eat at the dinner table again. Thinking about it, however, I know that nothing really improved.
I had two new problems. The first was that my parents and I were not getting along; we couldn’t agree on anything, and my faith in God was dwindling daily. For that, I think my mother was disappointed in me. And I’m sure my father hated me.
The second problem was that I was struggling to write. My mental mine of resources seemed barren. Stories weren’t manifesting. Words seemed elusive. And even though at one point I had written one of the best short stories in the country, I couldn’t even work out a single sentence.
I barely got through high school, taking a fifth year just to graduate. I failed to hand assignments in on time while I battled through an immense depression. I tried my hand at horror and muscled out pages of rubbish, barely readable fragments of first drafts that had hooks about as blunt as rubber. I kept as much hidden from my parents as possible, for as long as I could, but they eventually found the Clive Barker and Anne Rice books I’d been hiding under my bed, and eventually everything came out. The way things were going, they were getting very upset with having to shelter a failure who didn’t agree with their good Christian lifestyle. I had to leave.
I used the Ontario Student Loan benefit to get into a college journalism program and find myself a little sublet attached to a farmhouse, literally just outside of the city. I didn’t tell anyone where I went.
The years crawled on. The damage I’d done at home never repaired. I refused to answer phone calls. I stopped writing anything outside of school papers. I ran out of money. I dropped out.
But I’d kept that letter I received from the editors at Young Voices. It became the only light of hope for me, and I decided that maybe—maybe if I kept at it—it might be best to continue on with the plan of doing what I always wanted; getting published.
Things couldn’t go bad forever, I thought. Things had to turn around. The trick was not giving up. I had time. I’d start over.
I applied for welfare, and got right to work writing what I’d hoped would be novels. I focused all my energy onto the keyboard. Every word had to fit, every sentence had to be a stroke of genius. I sacrificed my relationships, my health, and my money. I was going to Hell, anyway.
I lived by the day, feeding myself with what meager foodsuffs I could afford. I thought with all my time I’d finish a novel in a month. Then that became a year. Then a year became two years. I was living like a prisoner in my own room, chained to the keyboard, watching the sun rise and set and rise and set again and again, from my outside my tiny window.
In most writer’s lives, there is a very scary and emotional moment where they have to decide whether or not they’ve got what it takes; when they take a hard look at themselves and decide wether or not they are going to continue seriously writing. If writing isn’t paying for food and rent, it can become a very real decision to made.
For me, that moment came the year I turned twenty-six. I have to admit, it had taken a good while for that reality to sink in.
After days and days and days of nothing but writing, my desperation was complete; I still hadn’t finished a single piece. All that time, and I literally could not do it. I’d start one thing, ruin it, throw it out, then start a new piece, and the cycle just went on. Anyone else would have developed at least some kind of voice. But me, nothing came from anything. Something was wrong with me. Nothing worked like it did in the short story I’d written so long ago. The fervor was absent. The trigger or impulse had utterly disappeared.
I went to the mirror, and take a hard look I did. I saw myself. I saw myself as who I was. Tears rolled down my cheeks and dropped into the sink.
I started uttering something to the reflection, to my ‘twin’ there, in the mirror. I had long ago denounced religion, but if what I did that night was what you’d call praying, let it be that.
“Please,” I said, and the reflection mimed, “whatever is there, whatever power, whatever fundamental essence, I’m begging you—help me. Whatever it is that I need to do, anything, just give me what I’m missing. Give me what I lost.”
At the time, I thought I was being completely ridiculous. So I went to bed and cried quite a bit, thinking of ways that I could find a job and make some money and build myself into a fuctional human being again. One thought occurred to me though, out of the hundreds, that really stood out.
And that thought was the start of how I would find Wesley Torrenshell, or Wes, as he’d insist I call him. We were a very good fit for each other, all things considered. Even though I wouldn’t even learn his full name, or the nature of our twisted relationship, until he learned how to talk.