Shimmer #15 – The Secret Life of Kaira Cade (Part 1)
Okay, here’s the deal: ever have one of those experiences where everything you thought you knew about someone was turned completely upside down? That’s what’s happened to me in as many months the times my best friend came out to me: first to tell me that she wasn’t really a guy like I’d always thought, and now this!
Racing down the freeway I kept trying to steal glances of her in the mirror. She was glowing, and not in the way you might glow after having a really awesome day. No, this was more like a Christmas tree or dim mood lighting, the kind of glow that no human being without sipping a healthy dose of uranium in their chai should be able to produce.
Eyes on the road. It was hard not to look back. Her breathing was starting to get more and more shallow, even worse than it had been when I first found her curled up in the back seat. Why she picked that spot to start dying I’ll never know.
“How’re you doing back there? Do you need some more water or something?”
The verbal prompts were mostly for my sake. She knew what she was doing, I was just the driver. My job was to get us to location X as fast as possible to meet mysterious person Y who was the only listed contact in exhibit Z, the cheap, nasty spare cell phone that I’d been told was ‘the Hotline.’
I almost hit the brakes when I heard her retching but was told “don’t stop, don’t stop…” Why couldn’t I stop? I didn’t know how to handle this, and why couldn’t we go to a normal hospital? Only when looking back and seeing a stream of purple oozing from her mouth was the answer obvious. Yeah, I’d seen a lot of puke in my time, but never that color.
“Hey,” I called back. “You’re not going to come out and tell me you’re from outer space next, are ya?”
She trembled as she laughed. “No… only human. Well… super… human… heh.”
Time was running short even before the half-hour drive downtown where we were stopped by red light after red light. Didn’t they know it was an emergency!? It was right there on the front of my mind, that urgent need just to go #%&$ it and drive despite what my passenger wanted. “Trust me,” she’d wheezed earlier, “the last thing we want… is to be noticed.” Why? I probably didn’t want to know that either.
Finally we pulled over in a quiet backstreet that on any other night would have been packed with cars. The red light district wasn’t all that far away and I was feeling more than out of place. Just what the #%$& had I been drawn into?
A lonely figure in a gray hoodie looked both ways before crossing to meet us. This had to figure Y, or a drug dealing rapist murderer: you can never really tell these days. But he had to be our guy, right? The blinking figure in the back didn’t make him so much as flinch and he didn’t hesitate to examine her after I stepped out.
“How long’s she been out?” he asked urgently.
“Uh… I don’t know. She was talking to me just a few minutes ago. Listen, can you tell me what’s going on here? Because I am seriously starting to freak the $#%& out about all of this.”
“Before she mentioned a name, right? Aaron Hardcastle?”
“Something like that,” I answered without certainty. “Who’s he supposed to be?”
“Aaron Hardcastle is a contract assassin and because of him your friend has contracted a semi-intelligent strain of xeno-bacteria,” he explained. “Now please step back!”
I inched away nervously as he quickly unzipped the front of Glimmer Girl’s costume. He could be trusted, right? Even though he looked nothing like any doctor I’d ever seen before, or even a nurse. Maybe a med student, but given how young he looked I still had doubts. Still whoever he was supposed to be he was just the man for the job, and the man who was just about to do what I never could.
There wasn’t much I could do except watch, and even though I’d been the one to get her the help she needed I didn’t feel like I was doing enough. Something about seeing your best friend battle for her life right before your very eyes that makes you feel so powerless, and to think it should happen like this, with masks and tights and superpowers and professional killers: it was a lot to take in. If she pulled through… no, when she pulled through… everything was going to be different because of this one mind-shatteringly surreal night.
My name is Tanya Truman. My best friend is a superhero, and I don’t know what to think anymore.
* * * *
Four months ago:
Sometimes I really had to wonder if Glimmer Girl and Justin could be any more different. One had been all around the world and could fly to New Zealand and back in an hour if she pulled out all the stops, while the other only existed in three places: school, home, and Tanya’s house. That third option was by far my favorite. Sometimes it felt as though I was closer to her family than I was my own, and were it not for the freedom I was allowed with my parents I might have even asked to move in.
When the door opened I was bombarded by a four foot tall munchkin with a high voice. Her unbearably audible joy was completely indecipherable through the loud squealing. It almost made me wish I had a little sister of my own, and if I didn’t know what a brat Angie could be sometimes I would have.
Meanwhile, there stood her mother rolling her eyes playfully at me. “Great. It’s about time you showed up.”
“Hey, Jenny. Sorry,” I said while wrestling with the youngster. “Shouldn’t she be in bed by now?”
“News of your arrival made her too excited for sleep,” my would-be mother explained.
“Really? Gods. What did I ever do to win such popularity?”
“Maybe it’s that beautiful smile of yours,” she teased as she pulled the child from my grip. “As for you, little miss, it’s time you to settle down.”
“But I don’t want to,” Angie whined. Kids, huh? Difficult one minute, impossible the next.
I leaned down and beckoned the little girl closer. “Hey, Angie. If you cut your mommy some slack I’ll give you a merry-go-round tomorrow.”
“Two merry-go-rounds,” she demanded.
“You sure? It might make your head blow up.”
Yeah, blow up with excitement maybe. She didn’t care, she just wanted the ride. Satisfied with this she ran in for one more squeeze and allowed herself to be swept away. “Ni ni, Justin! I love you!”
Two merry-go-rounds, I mused. Who would have thought that grabbing a small child by the arms and swinging them around would constitute some kind of payment? Oh well, what did it matter? So long as the bribe worked.
Dragging my heavy bag to the base of the stairs I looked up to see Tanya peering over the rail. Evidently she’d been watching the entire time and waiting, eager to start the transformation as I was terrified.
“You took your time getting here.”
“I told you I’d be late,” I said. “There were a lot of things I needed to take care of first, you know?”
“No, I don’t know,” she said. “That’s why it’s your secret life.”
The suitcase rolled over every step with a heavy thud to the next. One after the other we finally made it to the top where I wished I had super-strength in place of industrial lighting powers.
Tanya considered the luggage a moment. “Are you really planning to wear all of that?”
“Um, yeah, about that. I kinda wanted to ask you a favor,” I said bashfully. “Well, it’s just… I was hoping that since you’re the only person I’m out to and everything that you’d look after my stash.”
“Your… stash?” she echoed with a slight giggle.
“Seriously, I can’t leave this stuff at home. What would I do if my mom or dad ever found it?”
“I suppose if I were to keep a large deposit of feminine attire in a suitcase that it wouldn’t arouse any suspicion,” she mused coyly. “So does that mean that if I agree to this favor that we can hang out more often?”
“Yeah.” I shifted uncomfortably.
“Jeez. Don’t treat it like it’s a prison sentence.”
“I’m not!” I protested. “It’s just… you’re the first person to ever see this side of me. Sharing it, having to trust you… it’s weird.”
At this Tanya simply smiled and actively reached for the bag’s handle. “Well if you can’t trust me by now, who can you trust?”
Though she had a point she didn’t know all my secrets: there was still Glimmer Girl to contend with. The part of my life where I was strong and courageous I would have gladly shared if only it didn’t make those closest to me afraid for my well being. At least that was my excuse.
Dragging the case into her bedroom Tanya was enthusiastically quick to push the door closed behind me. Who would have thought my cross-dressing would get her so excited?
“So,” she began, “do I get to meet Kaira yet?”
“Wow. You’re eager to replace me,” I teased.
“What’s wrong with wanting to meet my new best friend? If this is what it takes to make you really happy then I want to help you out of your shell. Is that really so bad?”
“No,” I said nervously, “I guess not.”
Tanya stood, grinned and squeezed me affectionately. It seemed strange that she would care for me through this and make light of what sometimes felt like a monster inside me. All those times I tried to starve or kill it, it didn’t seem right or sane somehow that she would want to help feed it. If I were a good friend, I thought, I’d bury this again and try to be normal.
Pulling back she smiled and gestured towards the bathroom. Gods, she had her own bathroom. How lavish was that? Staying at Tanya’s house was sometimes like spending the night at the Hilton.
As I opened the suitcase and palmed over my belongings Tanya leaned against the door and continued the conversation. “Can I ask you a personal question?” she asked.
No, I wanted to say. Things were awkward enough as it was.
“Sure,” I relented.
“How long has this been going on? I mean, wanting a sex change is not an overnight decision for anybody, right?”
I ignored her and focused on the subject at hand. Each article of clothing to come out of the case was pored over with every ounce of harsh judgment that I could muster as if it were the pieces of fabric that earned the world’s disapproval and not the person I was. That alone kept me from running home in tears, ashamed that I’d dared to take a step towards unrealized destiny.
“Justin? @#%&, I mean… Kaira?”
Hearing both names made me shudder. It seemed I’d never given much thought to the way people would adjust, trip, and fall back on the old names out of habit, but that was only natural. The new name I’d chosen didn’t quite fit yet either. Still, even slipping innocently back and forth cut deep as if to say ‘gotcha! I know who you really are.’
“Yeah,” I stammered. “I’m… I just… yeah. It’s not new, I… all my life, okay? Every day. Always.”
“Even before you’d even heard about transgenders?” she asked.
“Even then,” I explained. “The only thing different was that it didn’t have a name yet.”
She asked me questions the entire time I was in there. It was the usual array that I’d come to expect from other people’s stories: ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ ‘What if you have regrets later on?’ ‘Does this mean that you really do like guys?’ Though the answers seemed obvious to me I guessed I couldn’t expect other people to understand. I mean, I was the alien, after all.
At least she didn’t ask which bathroom I planned on using, I thought.
Finally the transformation was complete. In place of the shy boy presented daily there was a strange girl shuffling about nervously, unsure of what she might find outside the locked door behind her.
I kept comparing myself to Glimmer Girl like she was another person or something. At least with the mask I knew I could pass, but as a regular person I wasn’t so sure. Inspecting my appearance up and down I was quick to correct as many of the flaws I was in my power to and prayed that the rest sent the right message.
“Okay,” I said.
Tanya called out from the other side of the door. “Ready?”
Yeah, right. Nobody was ever truly ready to face their fate, but it was something to be endured all the same.
I opened the door.
My eyes, as much as I’d pushed them, would not stay open. I couldn’t bring myself to look upon Tanya’s face even if her response was positive.
“Oh my god,” she gasped.
I dared to pry open one eye to catch the shocked expression she wore. Tanya’s jaw had fallen so far down that it was almost cartoonish.
“You bitch,” she concluded with a chuckle. “You @#$%ing bitch!”
“What did I do?” I winced.
She beamed. “You make a better woman than I do!”
“It’s really not,” she said calmly. “Look, I understand you’ve probably had a lot of practice getting those culturally imposed self-image issues thrust on the rest of womankind down pat, but you seriously look gorgeous.”
It was oddly surreal being complimented like that, and somehow dangerous. Even against all the doubt I’d accumulated over the years I was losing the balanced mindset I needed to keep to the thought that maybe, just maybe, she was a little bit right.
I ran back to the mirror, determined to find something wrong. My hands, my neck, my narrow hips: one of them was bound to give me away at some point. I couldn’t afford to have a big head.
Tanya stopped at the doorway and sighed. “What are you so scared of, KC?”
Discovery. Rejection. Pain. Did she really want the full list? It was different behind closed doors when those fears bore no teeth, but now that I was moving forward I would have to confront those concepts daily. How can a person live like that? How could I?
“I’m scared of…”
“Of what?” Tanya pushed gently.
The answer made me shiver. “Of being a tranny,” I told her.
“You mean… of not being seen as a woman? A real woman, I mean?” she said. I nodded. “Okay, even if that were to happen, what the hell do they know? You look amazing, and to the people who really know you and love and care about you, you’ll never be fake. You’ll just be Kaira Cade: the shy girl who took too #$%&ing long to come out of her shell. That’s it.”
Suddenly it occurred to me how determined I was to be miserable, because when a smile pushed its way onto my lips I was vaguely disappointed. At least disappointment I knew how to live with.
Tanya stopped and blinked incredulously. “Oh wow…”
“What is it?”
“Nothing. I,” she stammered. “Wow. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile like this before.”
“Why? What’s wrong with my smile?” I laughed.
“Nothing! Nothing,” she insisted. “It’s just…”
“It’s real,” she said, as though she’d not seen that from me before. Come to think of it she probably hadn’t.
Sometimes in life the best things, the best people, are taken for granted. Whether you mean to or not doesn’t matter, only that it happens. Then every so often one of them comes forward to remind you why they’re so special in the first place. This was one of those times.
“Thank you,” I said.
“For being awesome about all of this,” I beamed. “A lot of people aren’t lucky enough to have a Tanya watching their back at every turn.”
“Some people have $#&%%y best friends. You don’t,” she retorted playfully.
I couldn’t keep my eyes away from the mirror. It was surreal to see the girl in me staring back without the aid of a mask and bright costume. The hero life had made the journey so much larger, so much more theatrical that I needed time to getting used to the sight of a normal down-to-earth type person.
“We should show my mom,” Tanya said.
“No. I don’t think I’m ready yet.”
“Come on! You know she won’t laugh or anything. This is the woman who goes to painstaking measures to safely relocate ants crawling in the bathtub.”
“No,” I said again. One victory that night was enough, though Tanya wasn’t satisfied. Reluctantly I threw her a bone. “Maybe later.”
“Hey, you know what we should do?”
Tanya’s face lit up much the same way a small child would when they were preparing to stick you with something. “We should go to Champion Park.”
“No!” I cried in protest.
“Why not?” she asked excitedly. “It’ll be fun! Have you ever been?”
I wasn’t going to let her car salesman technique work on me. Besides, why would I ever go to a superhero inspired theme park? It was something for the public to enjoy: not a hero like Glimmer Girl who looked down on that kind of thing as garish.
“No and no,” I told her again sternly.
“Come on. What better way for you to make your big splash than with roller coasters, cotton candy and slip ‘n slides?”
“Oh, gods, you want me to go like this!?”
Tanya looked down with mock disappointment. “Come on, KC. You’ve got to come out sometime, and you’ll have me to protect you. We need a day like this. You owe me.”
“No,” I told her again, and again, and again. “Don’t try and emotionally blackmail me. I’m not going. This is too big, too soon, and you can’t make me do anything I don’t want to. Okay? That’s my final word on it.”
“Fine,” she groaned.
“Next time, I promise.”
“Shut up and let me do your make-up.”
That much I could deal with. Actually it was one of my favorite things so I jumped at the chance like an eager puppy. It was something that Tanya also liked doing, which seemed strange considering she never ever woremake-up herself.
We went through the usual cycle: foundation, eye shadow, then “sit still or I’ll stab you” as we got to the eyeliner. Easier said than done. You try having a pencil run that close to your eyeball without blinking. As if it’s not hard enough to do on your own.
“Tell me something,” I asked distractedly. “How’d you get so good at this stuff?”
“My mom,” she explained vaguely. The rest of her concentration was on not blinding me. “It was back before she and my dad split up and she was still a Christian. Every Tuesday, Thursday and twice on Sundays she’d let me ‘help’ her while she got ready for whatever thing the church had her going to.”
“By ‘help’ you mean…”
“I got better,” she said. “I had a lot of practice.”
Was I jealous? Okay, I was a little bit… or a lot. A short lived twinge of resentment flared at her good fortune, but she was sharing the gift, so what was the problem? Really it was hard not to be jealous of the things she had: the things I wanted but wasn’t supposed to want.
She moved onto the mascara. “Okay, really sit still this time or we’re going to get black $#&% everywhere.”
That turned out to be next to impossible. A sudden knock on the door made me nearly jump out of my skin, leaving thick black lines smeared down my cheek. Before I could react any further the door came open and there was Tanya’s step-dad, Grant, looking absolutely astonished.
He froze. I froze. Crap! What was I going to say?
“So this is what you two get up to alone by yourselves?” he asked coyly. “And here I thought it was all popcorn and action movies.”
“I can explain,” dribbled fearfully from my mouth. Grant just smiled as if to say he’d love to hear it. Crap again…
Tanya bounced back and forth between us like a spectator at mime tennis. She seemed to find it all too amusing and gave me a playful nudge. “You know, KC, a more superstitious person might think this is the universe’s way of telling you to do something.”
“K-C?” Grant echoed. Up until that point he only knew J for Justin. Way to force the point, Tanya.
“It’s nothing,” I lied. “We’re just playing dress up, like we did when we were kids. It’s a one off thing,” though the open case sitting obviously in the middle of the room told an entirely different story. Ugh, I hated my life.
He thought about it and shrugged, like it was no big deal or something. “I just wanted to ask you two if you wanted to come down and watch a movie. Chow Yun-fat, subtitles and explosions, I figured you’d both want in.”
Tanya grinned. “Sur-“
“Maybe later,” I interjected. “I need to talk to Tanya about something. Er… secret women’s business.”
“Alright, well, offer’s still in the table,” he concluded. “Jen’s still putting Angie to sleep. She might be a while. Somebody wound her up tight tonight.”
When finally we were alone again Tanya collapsed back in a heap. “You know he wouldn’t have been bothered,” she said. “I mean he’s pretty big into the dharma. Your needing to change your sex isn’t going to rock his world or anything.”
What could I say? “It’s embarrassing.”
“Well, yeah,” I reasoned. “It’s different and… scary for a lot of people. I mean how often do you see trans people just walking down the street?”
“Every day,” Tanya replied with a pointed stare.
“Yeah, but you didn’t know until earlier this week, and tonight’s the first time you’ve ever really seen me as Kaira, so…”
“So you haven’t actually been wearing a boy mask all this time?” she queried.
“You’re confusing the point.”
“No, you’re just looking for reasons to hate yourself,” she said, “and I get it. I really do. You’ve got a whole world telling you that by virtue of birth you’re of lesser value, and you’ve become so used to that $#&% that you’re willing to defend it at every turn. Not being ready, that much I can appreciate, but watching you own shame and embarrassment that doesn’t belong to you, that I can’t stand. So buck up, missy.”
Missy. For some stupid reason that made me smile. It was like she had a freaking gift against which I could never win.
“Hey,” she grinned back. “You’re #&%$ing awesome, Kaira. Don’t ever forget it.” She pulled me into a sisterly hug, exactly the thing I’d been needing that night. How about that, huh? Suddenly everything just seemed… I don’t know, better.
After a minute I got up and started for the door. “Hey, where do you think you’re going?” Tanya demanded.
As if it weren’t obvious. “Downstairs. All those explosions aren’t going to just watch themselves.”
Funny that the next steps should be so easy, and no matter what kind of reactions waited downstairs it was alright, because looking back there was the one person who I could count on always: Tanya Truman, my superhero.
* * * *
There was a flash of light that left me reeling. For a terrifying few seconds I thought someone might have dropped the bomb with searing nuclear heat burning everything away into dust. I was almost relieved when it dimmed to reveal instead a wide eyed Glimmer Girl screaming in agony. It was the most brutal way to ever have to wake up, but she was alive: that was the important thing.
I took a step closer but the mysterious stranger had everything in hand. He held onto her arms with the strength of a bear and kept her anchored on earth where she belonged. I wasn’t needed, at least for the moment. Dazed, confused and scared out of my mind I figured that was a good thing.
Kaira’s lips shivered uncontrollably. “What…!? What just…!? Where am I!? Brandon!”
That was Brandon, the stranger only mentioned whenever Kaira got a mysterious text? Somehow it made sense. He wasn’t her secret boyfriend, he was her broker or whatever it is real world superheroes have as their support network. It would have been more obvious if I’d ever thought my best friend capable of flying across town and beating up bad guys.
“It’s okay,” he said, miraculously keeping a cool head. “You got here just in time. You just lost consciousness for a bit.” Yeah, like that was no big thing.
She paused, frightened and disorientated, and looked at me as if I were some kind of crazed delusion. “Tanya, is that…?”
“KC, it’s going to be…”
“No names! Please!” Brandon demanded. “You don’t want to make things any more complicated and dangerous than they already are!”
Thinking about her like that was more than a little trippy. With the mask and the tights she wasn’t Kaira anymore, she was this Glimmer Girl person I’d seen in pictures and tabloids, like she was someone else entirely. It was sort of like how Justin ceased to exist the second Kaira let her hair down, which actually meant that all this time she had been keeping three secret identities. Wow.
She struggled to stand but had Brandon to help support her. My efforts to help were waved off with “it’s fine. You can go now. I’ll take care of the rest.”
That was it? He really just expected me to go home and wait to hear something? “Come on, man. That’s bull$#&%!” I cursed him. No way was I not going to be there when KC got herself back together even if I was overwhelmed and confused and #%$& knows how many other things.
Kaira, though: “Seriously. Go home. I’ll be o…” (not so reassuring coughing fit) “…okay.”
Brandon gave me that look. ‘Serious clandestine hero business.’ It was hard to argue with so I let him go to whatever dark corner he was going to drag her. I could trust him, or so I kept telling myself. He was KC’s go-to guy: that had to mean something.
The next few days were going to be killer. To think this is where she’d been running off to all this time. Somehow I was a lot more worried than I was during the times I thought she was on drugs. Narcotics kill, but super-criminals and assassins kill even faster.
I lingered longer than I should have with the sight of blood and vomit in the back seat of my car reminding me again just how serious this was. #$%&. What kind of an ass#@%& was I for not sticking with them?
Suddenly I was up in the air with a snake wrapped tightly around my ribcage. Before I could think to act my lungs had me screaming with all the force I could muster. With immense strength the unseen reptile lifted me from the ground and turned me upside down. What was happening!? I was completely lost! I…
The tightening limb brought me eye to eye with the #$%&er responsible for my situation: a smarmy looking jerk with slicked hair and scars crosshatching his ugly square head. It couldn’t be, could it?
“You’re him,” I stammered. It had to be: the gun for hire after KC, Aaron Hardcastle.
But he wasn’t interested in talking to me. “Nice of you to leave me a hostage, Glimmer Girl!” he called haughtily into the darkness. “Your LCC friend is one thing, but I didn’t think you’d be stupid enough to grab a civvie! Why not make this easier on her and yourself, huh!? Let me finish my job and if you’re lucky… I may just let her walk!”
The tentacle contorted and pressed deeply into my arms. I struggled to breathe: any tighter and bones would start to break.
There was no way Kaira was going to beat this guy, not in her condition. Staring into the shadows I prayed for her to keep moving, to run, to get the hell away as fast as she could! Even if she was a hero and danger was her thing I couldn’t see her slaughtered like that.
I saw the light. She should have ignored me, but she didn’t. Idiot. She could have got away but instead was going to save the day.
“Good girl,” the killer mused. “So easy to make ‘em come crawling back.”
* * * *
TO BE CONTINUED…