Paul's dad has a lab in the basement.
I mean a real lab. Everything is white, grey, or metal, and there's all sorts of equipment that I've only ever seen in a doctor's office or on TV. There are no windows, so all of the light is artificial. Well, you could say that everything in the room was artificial. File cabinets. A lab table. Metal cupboards full of glass and other chemistry stuff.
Suddenly, I'm really glad that my mom and my aunt are here.
"Should we start with measurements?" Dr. Carson asks. I look over at him, and he's fiddling with his phone. "Do you mind if I record this? Just for my own personal research."
"You're not going to publish any of this," my aunt asked, sounding surprised.
"If I do, none of your names will be used. It will be completely anonymous," he answered. "But I don't think so. The marine life here is not very well known, even in marine biology circles, and those of us who know like to keep it that way. Could you imagine what would happen if the public knew that there was a creature that uses humans to incubate their young? Female, and now apparently male?" He rolled his eyes and shook his head, not needing to say anymore.
"There are plenty of animals that use other creatures to incubate their young, or as hosts," Paul pointed out.
"Not like the HPs." Dr. Carson jerked his head in the direction of the wall behind me. "And most of them don't look like that."
I turned to look. Up on the wall was a framed pencil or charcoal sketch. It was pretty much the only organic looking thing in the room. I stared at it for a moment or two. It was a sketch of an HP. None of the creatures has ever been photographed, or filmed, but the few scientists who study it have a pretty good idea what it looks like, and Paul's dad knows more than any of them.
It was pretty detailed. My eyes ran over every contour and curve of its body; in some ways it was like any other marine creature, built for life in the sea. But there was also an unearthly quality to it as well. It was both like and unlike any other sea animal I had ever seen, in books or otherwise.
There was a slight stir in my belly, as one or two of the fetuses inside of me shifted lazily. Without thinking about it, I pulled my hands into my hoodie, and pressed them up against my bare belly, under my shirt. It was as if they knew that I was thinking about them, or something like them.
"Friday, December 13th." Dr. Carson's vice broke me out of my mini trance. I crossed my arms over my chest, still inside the hoodie, and turned back to look at him. He was speaking into his cell phone, "Male subject, approximately 17 years old, give or take a few days. Subject is a host to the offspring of the benthic marine organism hospesium pendeus. Number of offspring is 9. Gestation is currently about three weeks into stage two of development, just over 60 days from implantation." He tapped his finger on the phone, and I heard a small beep as it stopped recording.
"Okay, I think we'll start with size and weight."
The rest that followed was like any other normal doctor's check up, except for the fact that I wasn't being examined by Aunt Ang, and I wasn't at her office, and I was pregnant. He had me stand on a scale, and then measured my belly with a tape measure, writing everything down. Then he pulled out an ultrasound and had me sit down in a lawn chair he'd set up- there wasn't any other place I could sit or lie down properly.
I settled myself into the chair, and watched as he spread the gel on my belly. The skin was smooth and shiny, even without the gel. The dome of it gave only slightly when I pressed on it, and my belly button still hadn't popped out, even though I was so big.
He tapped the phone again. "Subject's waistline is almost 40 inches, normal for this stage. Weight gained is 10 pounds, also normal."
"Only 10 pounds? I'm too huge for it to be just 10 pounds!"
"Actually, that sounds a bit right," Aunt Ang told me. "You won't start gaining serious weight until a few weeks from now. The fetuses are developing, but they won't put on the bulk of their weight until about February. You won't actually grow any bigger once January hits, but you'll certainly feel like you have."
I just gaped at her.
"No luminescence at this stage but fetal movement is strong and regular."
My ultrasound this time was a bit different than the one I had had a month ago in Aunt Ang's clinic. This time we could not only see the eggs but also the tiny forms of the HP babies inside. It was strange, looking up at them. I would see one of them moving on the screen, and feel it wriggling in my belly at the same time. My belly looked completely still though- they still weren't strong enough to see just by looking at me on the outside.
They were ghostly and transluscent, like outlines of animals instead of living things. I suddenly realized what Aunt Ang meant. Right now, they were skinny little things, building organs and bones- well, I really don't know if HPs actually have bones- but soon they would have to start building muscles and storing fat. Really what was taking up the most room in my belly right now was amniotic fluids and whatever other nutrients and yolk that were already in the eggs. Once they were gone, they'd start relying on nutrients from me up until the birth.
"Each egg is about 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Fetuses are visable, and seem to be in normal stages of development. The egg sac has worked its way out of the subject's intestines, where implantation occurred, and is now lodged in the subject's abdominal cavity." Dr. Carson moved the ultrasound wand further down my belly. "Past cases of this type of implantation have ended in natural births with no complications, but the ultrasound is unable provide a clear picture of the birthing pathway, unless a more invasive method is used."
I looked away from the ultrasound, and at Dr. Carson when he said that. Invasive method? What did he mean? Like, stick something up there?
The look on his face told me that was probably the case, and the gleam in his eyes told me that he really, really wanted to do it.
"I don't think that will be necessary," I heard my mom say on my other side. Her voice was tight, and very firm, and I didn't need to look at her face to know that she was sending her blackest warning look in Dr. Carson's direction.
"All in all, the subject's pregnancy is completely normal, except for the fact that the subject is male and not female," he continued with a shrug. He tapped the phone to stop the recording, trying not to look disappointed. Oh god, creepy!
He handed me a rag and I cleaned myself off as quickly as I could. The sooner I got my shirt and my hoodie on, the sooner I could get out of here!
Or so I thought. We got upstairs, and the grownups decided to make small talk. Small. Talk.
Why do adults do that? Talk to people they obviously don't like? Aunt Ang hides it better, but it was obvious, at least to me, that my mom wanted to escape almost as much as I did. Why then, the small talk? Really?
They were at the dining room table. I had made my way over to the living room and was in a comfy chair, looking out the window at the ocean. It was nothing that I hadn't seen before, but I felt both wired and worn out at the same time, and it was a little bit calming to look at. Now that my hoodie was back on, the babies inside me were moving much stronger, as if they knew that I was feeling nervous.
"Hey, I brought you some water," Paul said softly, just by my shoulder. I took the glass he offered me, and took a sip, then a gulp. My throat felt better, and I relaxed just a little bit more.
"Sorry about that. Dad takes his work seriously, and he was really excited when he found out that you were carrying," he went on, sitting in a chair nearby. "He really wouldn't do anything you didn't want him to do, honest."
He sounded so sincere. I wish I could believe him, but those were not the kind of vibes I had been getting down in the basement. I wondered if Paul had seen the look on his dad's face. Had he even been in the basement during my exam? I couldn't remember.
Change the subject!
"How many people at school know?" I asked. It was something that Mack and I never talked about. I dunno, asking her just felt weird. That wasn't why she was hanging around with me, and that wasn't why I wanted her to hang with me.
But Paul was far game. And he was used to bouncing in between the boys and the girls circles, so he'd have all the gossip, not just from one point of view.
"Well, I'm not sure about the boys. They've never said anything, but," he paused, and scratched the back of his head again. Must be a nervous habit.
"Shane knows, doesn't he? I can tell. They ask about you, and he gives them a sort of 'meh' answer and changes the subject. And they let him. It's like they don't think it's weird that you guys are best friends, and he absolutely doesn't want to talk about you."
"The girls definitely know. They keep asking me questions about the HPs and if they've ever impregnated a guy before, and how it would work, and all that sort of thing. They never actually say your name, but there is no way they don't know."
"Peachy," I muttered.
"That's high school. God, I remember going to high school down south, and once people find out something juicy, suddenly over a thousand or so kids know it. A thousand eyes staring at you while you walk down the hallways, judging you."
Paul wasn't looking at me now, he was looking out the window. It was almost as if he was looking at something really far away, or remembering, and I realized that I was probably right about Paul being gay.
"A thousand kids in one school?" I whistled softly. I really couldn't imagine it. I'd never been in a school other than my own before. I'd never really been out of the town before. Mom is almost always carrying during out vacation time, so it makes it hard to get away. My dad and I would go camping every once and awhile, but we never went more than 50 miles away or so.
"Yea. Pretty standard, really." He turned back at me. "Hey. Um… Would you mind if…"
I knew what he wanted. I probably should have said no, especially after what had happened downstairs.
"Yea, for a sec, if you want," I heard myself say instead. I lifted up my hoodie and my shirt, exposing my belly again. He reached over and ran his fingers across the skin, exploring gently, pressing down once or twice to test how hard it was. Every time he did, one of the babies would jerk and shift in response, not hard enough for him to feel, but I sure did.
I tried to keep my face neutral, but god it felt good to have someone touch my belly. It didn't seem to matter if it was a girl or not! The only one I was immune to was my mom, and she didn't touch my belly all that often. I didn't actually become excited or anything, but a big part of me definitely didn't want him to stop anytime soon.
"You missed a spot," he said, sweeping his finger along a lower edge of my swollen abdomen. He lifted it up, and I saw some of the ultrasound gel on it.
"Ah, thanks," I muttered as he got up to go find something to wipe it off with. When his back was turned, I hastily pulled my shirt and hoodie back down, trying to remember when Mack said she would have another day off.