Today was Cindy Lacerto’s 10th birthday, and she couldn’t remember ever being this sad.
“One’s tenth birthday is an important milestone in the Lacerto family,” her mother announced, just one week ago. As usual, Cindy felt as if something was expected from her rather than being given to her.
When asked whether she had any preference as to the party’s theme, Cindy answered with a single word. It was a word she’d been unable to shake free from her mind in recent times. A word that had the power to fill her with ecstasy, that caused her mind to stray from every task, that kept her up at night aching with desire.
“Kittens!” she’d blurted out.
At that, her mother narrowed her eyes, nodded, and sipped her morning cocktail.
Now, her kitten-themed party was over, and Cindy felt like crying. Rainbow shrapnel was strewn across the expansive lawn and the last of the guests were saying their goodbyes. Her bedazzled birthday crown slightly askew, Cindy plopped down in her wrinkled party dress and crossed her arms. She glared at the stately old oak tree that stood near the center of the yard.
I’m not getting one.
I can’t believe it. I’m really not getting one.
If Father could afford to get me that stupid, ugly yacht for my ninth birthday — with a stupid, ugly crew and all the stupid, ugly accessories — why couldn’t he get me one tiny, darling, sweet baby kitten?
Like all her previous birthdays, even though he footed the bill for the lavish party, her father had been called away by work and missed the whole thing. She found herself wishing he were there, but not because she missed him.
Cindy could count on one hand the times they’d engaged in conversation since her last birthday. When she was younger, his lack of attention really bothered her. But these days she found that it barely affected her at all.
Guess this is what the adults mean by ‘growing up’.
Whenever he was home, her parents would be too busy quarreling with each other to notice her. Unfortunately, the task of organizing the party had required her mother to notice her more often than normal. Cindy could use a break.
“When your father returns from his trip, you will express your gratitude for all of this,” Cindy’s mother said over breakfast, as they looked out on the staff setting up the party. “This day means a lot to him. Another Lacerto is shedding the frivolity of childhood — and not a minute too soon. Don’t you dare make that face at me, young lady! I mean it. It’s time to leave your childhood behind. It’s time to march into this world as the adult you were always destined to become.”
Cindy studied the eviscerated piñata that hung from one of the oak tree’s branches. A broomstick leaned against its the trunk, and scraps of papier maché littered the roots that poked through the grass.
What the heck was Mother thinking?
Watching the entire school beat up a poor, defenseless, wonderful, papier maché kitten is NOT what I call a party.
Every single student from her school had been invited, regardless of their age or whether Cindy had ever met them. As each arrived, they dutifully handed over a gift to the house attendants, who in turn carried it off to be opened, sorted, and accounted for. Watching gift after gift disappear into a back room, Cindy finally mustered the courage to ask her mother when she’d be able to play with them.
“Never,” her mother had answered. Then, noticing the moisture welling up in her daughter’s eyes, she leaned in closer and whispered sharply, “There’s nothing these people can give you that you don’t already have. It’s junk, all junk. Besides, darling, it’s not like they’re really giving you anything. All they’re really doing is paying for the opportunity to tell their friends that they attended the birthday party of a future Congressmen’s daughter.”
When a single tear sped down Cindy’s cheek, her mother sighed and added, “Oh, just be grateful you don’t have to write all those ‘Thank you’ cards! Once the staff clears away the party, they’ll get to work on writing them for you.”
In addition to their regular household army of waitstaff, her parents had flown in a platoon of internationally acclaimed chefs to prepare a birthday feast. Guests stuffed themselves on a sumptuous banquet of foie gras, buckets brimming with caviar, wheels of pig’s milk cheese, and plates of white truffle tagliolini.
Cindy barely touched her plate.
After dinner, the staff unveiled a table that buckled beneath heaps of sugary treasure: cat-eared cupcakes, buckets of ice cream, glistening pastries, and every kind of candy imaginable. The centerpiece was a five-tier tower cake, smoothed over with pink icing and topped with a gold-flaked, marzipan kitten.
The other kids attacked the dessert buffet like a pack of rabid hyenas, but Cindy stayed put. Something about the way they sliced up the golden effigy of the kitten made her stomach turn. Plus, she’d been distracted by the way her mother stood with her arms crossed, watching her, judging her. Cindy flashed a phony smile and sank deeper into her chair.
At one end of the pristine lawn a small orchestra had played for hours, filling the air with classical music. At the opposite end, a stage was erected to host an endless rotation of performers: professional magicians, balloon-bending clowns, jugglers of fire and knives, and acrobats so gravity-defying that they rivaled the Cirque du Soleil.
Every time Cindy would try to focus on a performance, her mind would become distracted by the vision that had been haunting her for months. Her fantasy was always the same: a soft, fluffy ball of fur is curled up in her lap, purring contentedly as she strokes it. She lifts the tiny feline and brushes it against her cheek. How soft! How sweet! She never, ever wants to stop covering it with kisses.
As Cindy sat alone, watching the poor, gutted piñata sway in the breeze, the vision took hold again.
Her breath quickened.
Sweat beaded on her forehead.
Her mouth watered with anticipation.
She licked her lips.
Then, remembering how her parents had absolutely, positively forbidden her from having any kind of pet, her heart plummeted back into darkness.
Why can’t they just give me this one thing?
I’ll trade everything I own — my clothes, my jewelry, even my stupid yacht — for one tiny, sweet, adorable kitten.
Why are they being so unfair?!
“Cynthia! Time to come in,” her mother called from the door leading into the dining hall. “Hurry now, dear. You know I don’t like to be kept waiting.”
After her mother disappeared back inside, Cindy huffed across the lawn and kicked at anything in her path. As she entered their sprawling dining hall, she saw her mother sending away the last of the staff.
“Sit down, dear,” her mother said. “Yes, right there at the head of the table, in your father’s chair. Quickly now, don’t dawdle.”
Before Cindy could ask what was going on, the door connecting the west wing of the house swung open. Her father was there, dressed in his fancy suit, his sharp features hinting at some kind of mischief. In his hands was a glittery package, no larger than a shoe box, wrapped neatly in emerald paper with a floppy pearlescent bow tied to its lid.
Another pair of shoes.
Then, with a meekness that was barely audible, a tiny meow escaped from the box. Cindy stopped fidgeting. Had it come from the box or from her imagination? She held her breath and listened.
“Did you enjoy your party, Cynthia dear?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, Father. It was absolutely splendid,” she lied. “Thank you for everything, Father.”
He closed the door behind him and locked it. When he spun to face her again, his mischievous grin had been replaced by an impatient, aggressive scowl. Cindy had never seen him like this before. She squeezed the arms of her chair as he approached.
Cindy’s mother sat on her left, her thin, ruby lips curled into something resembling a smirk. To her right sat her father, drumming his fingers on the box and looking severely disappointed.
“You might think we’re cruel for not granting your incessant demands for a pet, but we’ve had our reasons.” He stopped drumming and locked eyes with Cindy. “The reason is that we had a much better gift in mind for today. Something of a birthright in our family. Something money can’t buy.”
Another muffled meow came from the box, and this time Cindy knew for a fact that she really heard it. She wanted to leap up, jump across the table, snatch the box from her stupid, arrogant father, rip the lid off, and then…
Her fantasy stopped dead in its track.
Her mind went blank.
“Are you okay, young lady? You look pale,” he turned to his wife. “The girl looks absolutely famished. Didn’t you feed her?”
“Of course, I tried,” her mother said, making a scowl of her own. “She’s had plates of that birthday slop shoved in her face all day. It’s not my fault that she refused to eat any of it. Smart girl, if you ask me.”
“Yes, she’s turning out to be quite smart. But perhaps a little timid for a Lacerto, wouldn’t you say?”
“Timid and repressed,” her mother said, letting the ‘s’ in ‘repressed’ linger on a bit longer than it should have.
Something in the way they spoke was off. It was as if they were speaking in code, or there was an inside joke they were making her suffer through.
Then they did something outright inexplicable. They smiled at each other. Just a weak smile, and just for a moment. For the first time in Cindy’s life she witnessed her parents exchange a smile.
“We must do something about it,” her father said.
“Yes, we must,” her mother agreed.
He slid the box toward Cindy.
“It’s time to open the gift your mother and I got for you.”
Cindy’s teeth chattered with anticipation as she stared down at the big, shiny bow.
I can’t believe it. I CAN’T BELIEVE IT.
I wonder what color it is? Long hair? Short hair? What breed?
OH MY GOD, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS IS REALLY HAPPENING!
Her heart raced so fast she thought it might burst into flames. Her face dripped like she’d just walked out of a sauna. She became so full of excitement that she wanted to rip her hair out, climb out of her skin, and rocket across the sky like a shooting star.
“Go on, dear! What’s taking you so long?” her father snapped as he slid a finger in his collar and tugged. “I’m dying to get out of this monkey suit. Go on!”
“Oh, don’t get so worked up, Cynthia. What’s in that box is just the first part of your gift. Once you’ve opened that, we’ll show you the big surprise,” her mother added.
Cindy placed her trembling hands on the box.
She swallowed hard and took a deep breath.
She flipped the lid off the box.
Inside was a small puff of white fur. A newborn kitten — so young its eyes were still shut — rolled over and yawned.
Cindy lifted the fragile thing out of the box and held it up to her face. Tears streamed down her cheeks. The tiny furball sneezed and cracked open its eyes. It was too much. It was all too much.
Then, as if her body were no longer hers, she shoved the helpless little morsel into her mouth. Her jaw clicked and opened wider than it ever had. Her lips stretched and cracked. The small puff of white fur was gone.
Feeling it squirming in her elastic throat, she instinctively tightened her neck muscles and forced it all the way down. A series of fireworks exploded in her belly.
She heard a breathy snicker and looked up. Where her father had been sitting now sat a human-sized lizard in her father’s fancy suit. A deflated mask of skin and hair lie on the table in front of it. The creature smiled coldly.
Her mother didn’t look the slightest bit shocked. Instead, she closed her eyes, clutched the front of her hair, and pulled.
A fistful of hair came out — but rather than dislodge from her scalp, it ripped the skin away with it. With her other hand, she clawed at her ear and pulled away another bloodless patch of skin. Again and again, she tore swatches of skin from her face. After a few more seconds of tearing and stretching and scratching, her mother had also become a human-sized lizard.
“What?…How?…” Cindy’s throat burned. “What’s going on?”
“Don’t look so upssset!” said the lizard who had just been her mother. “What do you think you look like under your disssguise?”
Her father flicked his forked tongue through the air. “Now you know what we are, and now you know what you are. We’re Reptilians, dear. We’re the owners of these apes and this dirty, litter box of a planet called Earth. I know this must be a shock, so take a moment to digest everything.”
“We’ve been dying to let you in on your heritage since the day you hatched,” her lizard mother said.
“Heritage? Hatched?” Cindy asked, equally shocked by their words and by the realization that her hands were steady and her heartbeat was slowing.
“Surely you’ve known you were different? Superior? Did you really think you were just some adolescent ape girl obsessed with infant felines?” Her mother snarled, and then both lizards hissed a laugh. “They’re much more delicious than you dreamed possible, aren’t they? I felt the sssame way when I was your age.”
“Happy birthday, Ccccynthia” her father said. ”Now, have you decided what you’d like for desssssert?”
Cindy looked at the empty box, then at the two lizard people dressed in her parents’ clothing. The lump in her stomach twitched. Part of her wanted to scream her head off and run away as fast as possible. The other part of her considered her mother’s harshness, her father’s coldness, and most importantly, her own indifference to either of them.
A warm light pulsed from her belly and filled her with a new sense of self. She knocked the empty box off the table.
“I’ll start with one more, please,” she said, reaching both hands up and taking hold of her hair.
The lizard in her father’s fancy suit smiled, reached under his seat, and slid another gift-wrapped box across the table.