Mirrors aren’t known to be forgiving, but with some effort they can warm to you. I laid out my brush and straightener, foundation, concealer, eyeliner, and lip gloss. They were only a handful of tools required to scrub the ‘boy’ away.
It was by luck and her Mom’s difficulty with stairs that Tanya landed the master bedroom. It came complete with walk-in closet and bathroom en-suite. The running joke was she had more space than she could use and no incentive to leave for college. But for a high school girl and her not-cisgender friend it was the ideal refuge.
An hour and a half over the vanity only saw the start of the transformation. Halfway to girl with some encouragement. It could have been his face burned into my retinas, or his dimensions spread across my shoulders. Nothing could remove the nightmare in my skin.
Tanya’s reflection smiled from the bed. “You look great.”
The empty cups on my chest said something else. Tissues, tape and silicone could only do so much in the war against testosterone. That I was so lean was the only concession afforded me by nature.
I brushed my hair over my shoulders and pivoted in front of the mirror. “Tell me I don’t look like a boy in drag,” I said.
Her answer was automatic. “You don’t look like a boy in drag.”
I glared at the would-be girl and frowned at the million and one mistakes in her jawline. “Do you mean that, or are you saying it because I told you?”
Even my voice was out of sorts. ‘Sarcastic TV comic’ was the highest I could go without sounding like a cartoon mouse. Anything else sounded fake as people thought I was.
Tanya bashed her head against the wall. “You look like a girl,” she said. “More than that, you’re kind of a hot girl, and even if you weren’t you’d still be a girl. Screw anyone who says different.”
My eyes rolled. Leaning in the bathroom doorway I caught her upside down gaze. “Liberated gender politics aside,” I said, “how do I look?”
She propped herself on her elbows. “You want me to judge you by the same BS cissexual standards imposed on the rest of womankind?”
Tanya pulled herself up and crossed her legs. She scanned the length of my body from head to tight-clad toes. “I say this as someone with arguably lower levels of testosterone than you,” she said. “You are ten times the girl I am, and I resent you a touch for being hotter than me.”
I smiled. “Yeah?”
“If you weren’t like my sister I’d put the moves on you,” she said, “but you are, so jealousy is what I’ve got.”
The half-girl in the mirror fought to soften her frown. She was cute, but most of that was make-up. Hours of online tutorials and a secret arsenal of cosmetics helped paint a nice picture. It was thick enough that I could pretend for a night.
Tanya sprawled on the bed, and reached toward the plastic stars fixed on her ceiling. “You have no idea, do you?”
“How you really look,” she said.
I poured over every inch. Hair? Clean and straight, with a lick behind my ear. Eyebrows? Arched, plucked to a fine line. Lipstick? Not a smudge, not even on my teeth.
“You said I look hot,” I said.
“You do, but that’s not what I meant.”
I ran down the checklist a second time, and a third. I took every precaution. Eyeshadow lessened the overreach of my brow. A scooping neckline de-emphasised my width. But I couldn’t bury everything. No matter what steps I took a boy frowned back.
“So what do you mean?”
Tanya rolled onto her stomach. “You know it’s not the make-up and the clothes that change you,” she said. “The second you don’t have to be a guy your face becomes softer. It’s like you don’t even need estrogen. You become a whole other person.”
The idea rolled on my tongue while I searched out her shape. Where was this girl that Tanya could see? My fingers balled against the counter.
“It’ll happen when you relax,” she said. “Breath. Do that thing your psych always tells you.”
Though I’d been reluctant to say so, the exercises from the therapist worked. At least most of the time. I inhaled to the count of four, and exhaled in time. The air was heavy, but I continued the rhythm. I closed my eyes and remained fixated on the numbers. Nothing else mattered but the steady beat.
My claws unfurled, and when I opened my eyes the boy was gone. My shoulders fell, and my expression was loose. A shift in mood released the girl inside; released me.
I blinked at my reflection. “I could be a shape-shifter.”
Tanya leaped from the bed. “Yes! That’s your power! You’re a shape-shifter!”
A smile lit up the room brighter than the string along the vanity. “There’s only one shape I want. Can it be this one?”
She rolled out of bed and popped her head under my arm. We made a heck of a pair, with me dolled up and Tanya in a t-shirt and shorts. The mirror was kind, though it only followed my lead.
“Want to hit the town?” she asked.
I grinned and said the magic word. “Coffee?”
* * * *
Crossing town in a semi-functioning beetle was a quest in itself, but worth it to reach the Lovin’ Spoonful. It situated in an old brick building on the far reaches of the local college. The coffee shop wafted in sensuous aromas, and held unique warmth for those who entered.
More than the atmosphere it was the people that kept us coming back. Gloria, self-proclaimed ‘Norse Goddess of the Bean’ leaned across the counter. She fluttered lashes too fabulous to be real, and immediately got to work on our order.
“You want a grande orange frappuccino,” she said to Tanya, and scooped ice into a plastic cup. She then turned to me. “And you want another soy chai latte, same as last time.”
I ducked. “That’s not so bad, is it?”
“Nah, lots of customers have a regular order,” Gloria said. “It’s a comfort thing. No shame in that.” She scampered between counters, moving like a whirlwind in time with the machines. “You girls take a seat. I’ll bring your orders to you.”
Tanya and her parents provided a home away from home, but the Lovin’ Spoonful came a close second. It seemed strange that a place of business should foster such spiritual connection. Even though we were young, even if we were less than normal, we had permission to exist. That alone meant the world.
We sat across from each other on leather cubic sofas separated by a coffee table. The window looked out to the pavilion and the white humanities building of the college. Tanya ruminated upon it, and the particular meaning to her.
“Excited for next year?”
She shook her head. “If I get in, yeah.” Doubt was so unlike her. I guess even Tanya wasn’t perfect.
“You’re going to make a great psychologist,” I said. She once called herself a meathead, having more in common with Adrian than Freud, but I knew better. I reached out and stroked her arm. “Besides, it’s not all about book smarts. You’re the most caring person I know, and the field needs that.”
Tanya forced a smile and nodded. She could deny it all she liked, but it was true.
Our orders arrived at the table, delivered by someone we’d yet to encounter. Tanya was awestruck with the lithe figure. Their lime green pompadour existed to spite physics. There was something about them; alien, unnerving from my end, but fascinating on the other side of the table.
“One orange frappuccino, and one soy chai latte,” they said. “Enjoy!”
“You’re, uh, new here?” Tanya said. Her look was one I’d seen only a few times. She bit her lip, and chastised herself for being so forward.
The server tucked the tray under their arm. “Yeah. Started last week. You two regulars?”
“Sort of,” I said. “My name’s Kaira. This is Tanya.”
My friend attempted to turtle her head into her shoulders. She looked up and searched the range of her expressions for a smile. Attempts one through twelve were awkward as anything, and not looking hopeful.
“Trix,” the server said with a grin. “Good to meet you.”
“Pronouns?” Tanya asked. She winced. “Sorry. I’m not asking to be rude. I just…” She bowed her head. She always made a point of asking, despite the small number who appreciated the gesture. On planet high school it was a joke.
They continued to smile. “They, them. Thanks for asking. You?”
I sat to one side and sipped my drink. I was a mere spectator to the flood of conversation. Pronouns fed into gender politics, to life at college, and to future aspirations. Tanya aimed to be a psychologist, and Trix majored in history. It wasn’t a conversation I was part of, not that it bothered me. The bashful smile on Tanya’s face was one she deserved.
“Do you mind if I get some air?”
Tanya shook her head and remembered I was there. “Uh, sure. Do you want me to come with?”
“I’ll only be a minute,” I said, and gestured for her to sit.
There was nothing to it. Trix was a college student, after all, with a few years on Tanya. Regardless, it was good to see her interested. Gods knew our school had nobody worth noticing.
* * * *
I hadn’t meant to wander so far, but the campus was so peaceful. There were only handful of students left. Getting lost in the history of old buildings was the easiest thing in the world.
Next I knew I was standing by the road and hugging my arms. I waiting for a green signal. On the other side was a park with the steel gates hanging open. A sparse number of streetlamps followed the path. Ominous shadows wound between the trees to warn strangers away.
Then I noticed the black muscle car sat in front of the stop light. The guys inside leered and whistled, except for the brute in the passenger seat. My heart froze in my chest. I looked away and hoped he didn’t notice.
“That’s a guy,” Adrian said. “I know him!”
He jumped out of the car, followed by two friends. The springs in my heels snapped. I didn’t need to look back to sense them. It was fight or flight. Given the chance they would eat me alive.
Adrian and his friends were less than dogs. Dogs don’t turn on each other the way people do. They didn’t hunt their own for the basest of reasons, like being small, like being different, like being a girl. The boys on my tail were chasing me like dogs, but they were so much worse.
I sprinted through the park and turned from the main road. Thick bulging roots hindered my pace. Somewhere I lost my shoes, but I failed to notice, even when twigs and prickles cut into my feet.
From the darkness there was laughter, like it was some kind of game. What kind of monsters made people afraid for fun? They closed in, and fast. One already found a way around the hedges.
There was no light where I was, and enough slopes to make sprinting dangerous. Between falling and Adrian I knew which fate I preferred.
I threw my arms out and collected tree after tree. With each collision I stepped to the side and kept moving. The streetlights were behind me and there were no stars in the sky. I was blind. My only consolation was that they couldn’t see either.
“Did you see where he went?” They were still close.
The air evaporated from my lungs, spent by panic and exhaustion. I held my breath lest they caught the sound of my gasps. My insides turned heavy and burned. Curling into a ball I prayed to whatever gods existed that they’d pass.
“I can’t see a thing,” Adrian said.
One of his friends laughed. “So what do we do when we catch him? Scare him, or…”
A pandora’s box flew open in my psyche. The things Adrian would do were without end, each more gruesome than the last. Without the eyes of authority who could tell what he was capable.
“Whatever Cade gets he’s got coming to him,” he said. With those words I was ten years old with his foot pressing down, drowning me in the toilet. Years later he’d come to finish the job.
“A good thing we found it,” the other guy said. “Can you imagine if it tricked someone into being gay?”
I squatted at the base of the tree and didn’t dare to shake. I waited for them to roll over like the mother of all storms. I had to still myself to survive, like always.
One of Adrian’s friends made a discovery. “Hey, I have the flashlight app on my phone.”
A surge bolted down by legs and threw me from the beam. The light jumped on my trail, and the boys howled like wolves. My steps crunched through the foliage. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, but worst of all I couldn’t stop.
I ran for what seemed like forever, carried by panic and not much else. A street light flashed between the branches and signaled an escape, small though it was. With every ounce of desperation left I bolted toward it and to the open street.
Adrian roared in the distance. “There he is! Don’t let him get away!”
A blaring horn, a wall of pain, and crunching glass struck together. The next moment I laid on the asphalt with headlights washing over me. There was no sound save the ringing in my ears. Adrian’s posse fled the way they came. A car pulled to the curb. Then nothing.
* * * *
When I woke it was with my brain in a fishbowl. It was set off balance and poised to roll from my shoulders. My nose itched, and something like fingers reached down my throat. Somewhere in the fog was white and green; tiles, a curtain, and sanitised equipment.
I leaned forward, but pain shoved back. The world dropped into freefall. I collapsed into the steel bars at either side. Where they came from was another mystery I couldn’t piece together, but was thankful for them.
My clothes were gone! My jacket, my skirt. I still wore my underwear and tights. Someone replaced my top with a blanket and paper gown. There was also new accessories; a drip hooked to my hand, and adhesives wired to machines.
Emotion welled inside of me, more than I could hold. My cries were loud enough to draw attention.
A man in uniform opened the curtain. I didn’t recognize him, but he wore a sympathetic expression. His words were like pudding, and slurped with as much sense. “Mister and Missus Cade?”
My Mom was there. She cried. She never cried. My Dad as well.
I remembered her taking my hand before the world slipped away. It was a long and dreamless sleep.
* * * *
Everyone called it a ‘miracle’, the product of deft maneuvering and a fluke landing. There were no breaks and no major damage to internal organs. Only a slew of cuts, sprains, and a concussion that rattled like a steel drum. By all accounts I should have been dead, but was able to carry myself on crutches. I was set on the road to recovery.
They released me after a three day observation period. Mom drove me home that morning. She brought a change of clothes. They were boy clothes. Kaira’s things lived in a brown paper bag, and sat in my lap during the trip. Somehow they managed to avoid conversation.
I stared at the buildings as they raced by. I was a phantom in the passenger seat. Mom was already back at work, barking orders at her secretary over the car’s bluetooth. The truth lingered, ready for acknowledgement, but her attention was too much of an ask. Typical.
The call ended. I wrung the seatbelt in my hands, and stole the odd glance.
Mom forced a smile. “Something on your mind?” Her tone was thick with honey. She knew.
My shoulders contorted. I closed my eyes to hide. “About the other night-”
“You don’t have to explain,” she said. “You’ve always been flamboyant, and that’s okay. That’s part of who you are. Your father and I have known since you were a baby.”
“It’s not like that,” I said.
She gripped the wheel and sighed. “Even if you’re not gay, which we’ve got no problem with, by the way, we accept you for who you are, and always will. You’re our son, and nothing will change that.” Her words seemed deliberate.
My grip wrenched tighter. “Mom-”
“We can talk about this later,” she said with mock pleasantness. “You need to rest, and I need to get back to work. We’ve made up a bed for you downstairs, and your father is happy for you to use his laptop. Anything else you need, please ask.” Like it was that simple.
An hour later I hobbled through an empty house. There was food, TV, internet, but nothing with a heart. Tanya was still at school, and the stairs on the porch were too great a challenge. The only thing with meaning was the brown paper bag.
I fished the skirt from inside, and slipped it over my leg brace. At least in an empty house nobody could excuse Kaira away.
* * * *
If Theodore Fellows lacked for anything it was the ability to remain idle. In the days following his termination there was little to occupy his time. Only the quest to liberate his work. No amount of ‘entertainment’ satisfied the itch toward progress.
Soon it was the night before ‘the big job’ whereby he would balance many qualms. It was unfortunate in the doctor’s eyes that it was necessary to consort with criminal types. Such was the way of things after falling from authority’s favor. Though it was the motto of tyrants, on this occasion the ends did justify the means.
They rallied at a single story home with an unkempt lawn. No doubt it the den of rats and reprobates. McVeigh waited by the ill-fitted screen that swung from the lower hinge. He beckoned Fellows to follow. In the main room, sat across an old sofa and garden chairs were five men, all the picture of brawn.
“This is my crew,” McVeigh said.
Dr. Fellows scanned the gathering. A single glance was all he required to determine their sort. Beer swilling, working class hooligans with no formal education. They may have skills in a trade, marred in their sense of ‘superior’ masculinity. They were the types who did the invisible work at InfiniTech. He deemed it honorable enough.
“You know who I am,” Dr. Fellows said. “What are your names?”
The dark haired man on the end, wide as he was sturdy, scoffed at him. “That’s not your business, friend. The less you know about us, the better.”
“Well,” the doctor hummed, “that doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence.” He glanced to McVeigh. He expected him to have a better handle on things.
McVeigh pressed to the centre of the room and removed his hands from his pockets. “Here we’ve got two men posing as InfiniTech security. They’ll get us onto the site, two grunts, a technician, and me behind the wheel,” he said. “We’ve got jamming equipment, AK-47s, glocks, and an armored truck. From what you’ve given us, that should be plenty.”
“And of course I’ll be there to oversee the operation.”
Laughter burst across the room. Dr. Fellows remained stone faced as ever.
The larger man sat forward. “You’re new, so let me tell you how it is, brother. Me and the boys here do all the hard work, and you sit home waiting for a delivery. That’s what you pay us to do.”
“He’s coming with us,” McVeigh said.
The doctor sharpened his tone. “There are materials and equipment that only a specialist can handle, capable as I’m sure you are. Some parts are more difficult to identify, so I will procure them while you provide security.”
McVeigh nodded. “I’ll be watching over the client. You boys do what you do best.”
“We do best without having to babysit,” the big man said.
Dr. Fellows bit his tongue, for in his mind it was he that was in the company of children. “I’ll give you another two hundred thousand,” he said. “Call it ‘hazard pay’.”
Quiet fell over the gathering. McVeigh folded his arms, deciding the matter on their behalf. It may have been an uneasy alliance, but there was little most men wouldn’t do for the right price.
“Then we have an understanding,” Dr. Fellows said. Their silence was confirmation.
Their griping was of no consequence, so long as the plan moved forward. The scientist took a seat to one side, and allowed the professionals to hash out details. He ruminated on his role in things to come. Though these men did not know it, they would be present for a world changing event.
To be continued…