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 but 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, complete with walk-in closet and bathroom ensuite. The running joke was she had more space than she could use, and no incentive to leave for college. For a high school girl and her not-cisgender friend, however, it was the ideal refuge.
An hour and a half over the vanity only saw the start of the transformation; only halfway to girl with some encouragement. Maybe it was his face burned into my retinas, or his dimensions spread across my shoulders, but it seemed nothing could remove the nightmare living 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 alone. “Do you mean that, or are you just saying because I told you to?”
Even my voice was out of sorts. ‘Sarcastic TV comic’ was the highest I could go without sounding like a cartoon mouse, without sounding fake like so many people thought I was.
Tanya groaned, and bashed her head against the wall. “Seriously, Kaira, 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 any different.”
My eyes rolled in spite of a smirk. 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?”
I nodded fervently.
Tanya pulled herself upright, and crossed her legs. She made a point of scanning 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 little bit for being hotter than me.”
I smiled in spite of myself. “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’m left with.”
The half-girl in the mirror fought to soften her frown as I leaned closer. She was cute, but most of that was make-up. Hours of online tutorials and a secret arsenal of cosmetics helped paint a pretty picture, thick enough that I could pretend for a night.
Tanya sprawled on the bed, and reached idly toward the plastic stars fixed on her ceiling. “You really have no idea, do you?”
“How you really look,” she said.
I stopped and poured over every inch. Hair? Clean and straight, with a lick behind my ear. Eyebrows? Arched, and 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. Every precaution had been taken; eyeshadow lessened the overreach of my brow, and a scooping neckline de-emphasised my width, but not everything could be buried. No matter what steps were taken there was still a boy frowning back.
“So what do you mean?”
Tanya rolled onto her stomach. “You know it’s not just 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 is always telling you to do.”
Though I’d been reluctant to say so, the exercises from the therapist worked; most of the time, anyway. I stood upright, breathed to the count of four, and exhaled in time. The air was heavy, but I continued the rhythm, closing my eyes and remained fixated on the numbers. Nothing else mattered but the steady beat.
Soon 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 was all it took to release the girl inside; to release me.
I blinked at my reflection. “I think I might be a shapeshifter.”
Tanya leaped from the bed. “Yes! That’s it! That’s your power! You’re a shapeshifter! Why didn’t I think of that before?”
A smile lit up the room, brighter than the string along the vanity. “There’s only want one shape I want. Can it be this one?”
She rolled out of the bed, and popped her head under my arm. We made a heck of a pair, with me all dolled up and Tanya in a t-shirt and shorts. The mirror was kind, though it was only following my lead.
“Want to hit the town?” she asked.
I grinned, and said the magic word. “Coffee?”
* * * *
Driving across town in a semi-functioning beetle was a quest in itself, but entirely worth the journey to reach the Lovin’ Spoonful. Situated in an old brick building on the far reaches of an upscale college, the coffee shop was immersed in sensuous aromas, and held a warmth that filled those who stepped inside.
More than the atmosphere, it was the people that kept us coming back. Gloria, one of the tireless owners, and self-proclaimed ‘Norse Goddess of the Bean’ leaned across the counter, and eyed us as we entered. She fluttered lashes too fabulous to be real, and immediately got to work on our order.
“You want a grande orange frappuccino,” she said of 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 slightly. “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 have your orders brought out.”
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, but not once had our place been questioned; 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 long, leather, cubic sofas, separated by a coffee table with abstract patterns. The window beside us looked out on a pavilion, and the crisp, white humanities building of the Milestone Academy of Technology. Tanya ruminated upon it, and the particular meaning to her.
“Excited for next year?”
She blushed, and shook her head. “If I even get in, but yeah.” Doubt was so unlike her, but I understood. I guess even Tanya wasn’t perfect.
“You’re going to make a great psychologist,” I said, and meant it. I’d heard her once call 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. Immediately Tanya was awestruck with the lithe figure whose lime green pompadour existed to spite physics. There was something about her; alien, and mildly unnerving from my end, but infinitely 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 blurted. Her look was one I’d seen only a few times before. She bit her lip, and chastised herself for being so forward.
The server tucked the tray under their arm, and smirked. “Yeah. Started last week. You two regulars?”
“Sort of,” I said. “My name’s Kaira. This is Tanya.”
My friend glared, and attempted to turtle her head away into her shoulders. When she failed she looked up, and searched her expression for her best smile. Attempts one through twelve were awkward as hell, and not looking hopeful.
“Trix,” the server said with a grin. “Good to meet you.”
“Pronouns?” Tanya asked, and immediately regretted it. “Sorry. I’m not asking to be rude. I just…” She bowed her head. It was the sort of thing she made a point of asking, despite the small number who appreciated the gesture. On planet high school it seemed a joke.
Instead, Trix eased. “They, them. Thanks for asking. You?”
I sat to one side and sipped my drink, a mere spectator of the flood of conversation between them. Pronouns fed into gender politics, which lead to life at the college, and their future aspirations; Tanya as a psychologist, and Trix majoring in history. It was a conversation I was very clearly not a part of, not that I was bothered. The bashful smile on Tanya’s face was one she deserved.
“Do you mind if I get some air?”
Tanya shook her head, as though just remembering I was there. “Uh, sure. Do you want me to come with?”
“I’ll just be a minute,” I said, and gestured for her to sit.
There was probably 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 there was nobody worth noticing at school.
* * * *
I hadn’t meant to wander so far, but the campus was so peaceful. Save for the handful of students running for the commissary before closing, the grounds were deserted. Getting lost in the history of old buildings was the easiest thing in the world.
Next I knew I was standing by the side of the road, hugging my arms and waiting for a green signal. To one side was a park with the steel gates hanging open. A sparse number of streetlamps followed the brick path reaching inside. Ominous shadows wound between the trees, warning most strangers away, myself included.
It was only then that I noticed the black muscle car sat in front of the stop light. The guys inside laughed and looked me over, except for the brute in the passenger seat. My heart froze in my chest as I looked away, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
“Hey, 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 know they were following. Fight or flight; they would eat me alive.
Someone once said that it was a dog eat dog world, but he was wrong; dogs didn’t turn on each other the way that people did. 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 may have been chasing me like dogs, but they were so much worse.
I sprinted through the park and turned off the main road. My pace was hindered by thick roots bulging from the dirt. Somewhere I lost my shoes, though I hardly noticed, 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 monster made people afraid for fun? They were closing in, and fast. One had 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 there was no question 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 as quickly as I was able. With the streetlights behind me and no stars in the sky I was blind. My only consolation was that they were just as lost.
“Did you see where he went?” They were still close.
The air had evaporated from my lungs, spent by panic and exhaustion. Not only could I not move, but but I couldn’t breath. I held tight, lest the sound of my gasps give me away. My insides turned heavy, and burned. Curling into a ball I prayed to whatever gods existed they’d pass me by.
“I can’t see a thing,” Adrian huffed.
One of his friends laughed, “so what are we going to do when we catch him? Just scare him a bit, or…”
A pandora’s box of horror flew open in my psyche. The things Adrian would do were seemingly without end, each more gruesome than the last. Without the eyes of authority to scare him back there was no telling the things he was capable.
“Whatever Cade gets he’s got coming to him,” he seethed. Suddenly I was ten years old again and his foot was pressing down, drowning me in the toilet. Years later, he’d come to finish the job.
“Probably a good thing we found it,” the other guy said. “Can you imagine if it tricked someone into being gay?”
Squatting at the base of the tree, pressed so tightly against it that I dared not even to shake, I waited for them to pass, like the mother of all storms. I only had to still myself to survive, just 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 cried like wolves. My steps crunched as I ran through the foliage. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t think, but worst of all I couldn’t stop; the nightmare would go on until there was nothing left.
I ran for what seemed like forever, carried by panic and not much else. A street light flashing between the branches signaled a chance to escape, small though it was. With every ounce of desperation left I ran 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. Suddenly I was 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, while a car pulled to the curb. That was all I could remember.
* * * *
When I woke it was with my brain in a fishbowl 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, maybe a curtain, and sanitised equipment.
I leaned forward, but pain shoved back with full force. The whole world dropped into freefall, and all that remained were the steel bars at either side. Where they came from was another mystery I couldn’t quite piece together, but was thankful for them all the same.
My clothes were gone! My jacket, my skirt; I was still left with my underwear and tights. My top half had been replaced 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. What was happening? My crying was loud enough to draw attention.
A man in uniform opened the curtain. I didn’t recognize him, but he wore a sorry expression. His words were like pudding, and slurped with as much sense. “Mister and Missus Cade?”
My Mom was there. She was crying. She never cried. My Dad as well.
The last thing I remember was 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, yet somehow I was able to carry myself on crutches, and 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; boy clothes, naturally. 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, little more than a phantom in the passenger seat. Mom was already back at work, and barking orders at her secretary over the car’s bluetooth. The truth lingered, ready to be spoken aloud, but like always her attention was too much of an ask.
Finally, the call ended. I wrung the seatbelt in my hands, and stole an odd glance.
Mom forced a smile. “Something on your mind?” Her tone was thick with honey. She knew, probably.
My shoulders contorted as I inhaled. I closed my eyes to hide from her. “About the other night-”
“You don’t have to explain,” she said. “You’ve always been flamboyant, and that’s okay. That’s just a 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, just ask.” Like it was ever that simple.
An hour later I was hobbling 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 for crutches. The only thing with meaning was the brown paper bag, and contents within.
I fished the skirt from inside, and slipped my leg brace through. 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, save the quest to liberate his work. Between steps, however, and after checking and rechecking the finer details, he had only distraction. No amount of entertainment, even that which passed for educational, satisfied the itch toward progress.
Soon it was the night before ‘the big job’ whereby a number of qualms were set to be balanced. It was unfortunate in the doctor’s eyes that it had become necessary to consort with criminal types, but such was the way of things when falling from authority’s favor. Though it was the motto of tyrants, on this occasion the ends truly did justify the means.
They rallied at a single story home with an unkempt lawn, no doubt the den of rats and reprobates. McVeigh waited by the ill-fitted screen swinging from the lower hinge, and beckoned Fellows inside. In the main room, sat across an old sofa and a number of 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 that was required to determine their sort; beer swilling, working class hooligans with no formal education, though possibly skilled in a number of trades, marred in their sense of ‘superior’ masculinity. They were the types who did the invisible work at InfiniTech, which he deemed honorable enough.
“You know who I am,” Dr. Fellows said. “What are your names?”
The dark haired man on the end, equally 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 whom he’d expected 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 and leaned on his knee. “You’re new here, 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 for.”
“He’s coming with us,” McVeigh said.
The doctor was unrelenting in his tone. “There are materials and equipment that require a specialist to handle, capable as I’m sure you all 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 huffed.
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.
Ultimately 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 the details, while 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…