Updated: Dec 14, 2020
After a mostly good day at school, and an excellent afternoon walking along the river with friends, new and old, I arrive home about six and suddenly remember the thumping on my boarded-up window that morning. Dad is home already and parked beside his truck is a curvy little BMW coupe, which I assume to be Denise’s car. I feel sick deep in my belly and wish I could disappear.
They’re talking in the living room when I enter the house. Denise stares at me and I give her what I hope is the most contemptuous brief glance in human history. “Dad, can we talk?”
“Sure, Denise and I are going to the city to see a movie this evening, but I have a few minutes before we need to get ready. Join me on the porch.”
We go out to the porch on the west side of the house and sit facing the sunset. A beam of light cuts through the clouds near the horizon, and the whole sky is deep orange with yellow like a forest fire. Dad packs some tobacco into his pipe. “How was school today?”
“It was good. I came out.”
“I figured, when you walked in looking like that.” He holds a match over the pipe, puffs a few times and then drops the match in an ashtray full of rainwater. “I still feel like you’re rushing this.”
“Rushing what? I just want to be myself.”
“Why does being yourself require suddenly looking like a girl everywhere?”
“Because presenting myself as a boy feels like lying.”
“We all feel like we’re faking our way through life, that’s the big secret men like to keep.”
“No, that’s not…just imagine if you were to present yourself as a woman in everyday life.”
He frowns and takes a moment for his pipe. “I have, and it’s ridiculous. I don’t understand why anyone would do it.”
“That’s how I feel about being a boy.”
Dad opens his mouth, about to respond reflexively, and then stops. “Oh.”
“When you go out for drinks with your buddies and play pool, how do you feel?”
“Relaxed, happy, and a little buzzed.”
“And included? Like you’re an equal part of the group?”
“Yeah, that too.”
“I felt like that for the first time today.”
He looks surprised, and maybe a little worried. “You never felt included here?”
“I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that I couldn’t express myself honestly, so how could I really feel like I belong? My friends saw me for the first time today, and now I know what it’s like. I’ll never go back.”
“Okay, Luca, I’ll set up an appointment for you with Evan Powers. We might as well get you going with some counseling if you’re going to charge ahead anyway.”
We both stand and I give him a hug. “Thanks, Dad.”
“Sure, just promise me we can take this slow and make sure something is right for you before we do it.”
“I promise.” I release him and turn to go, then stop. “Oh, could I move my bedroom down to the basement?”
“There’s a lot of junk down there,” he says. “But if you want to move things around, you’re welcome to it. Have fun. I won’t be back until long after midnight.”
I waste no time getting down to the basement. First I move Dad’s unused weight set into a corner and stack our storage crates along the wall beside it. Then I take a break to catch my breath and survey my new room. The floor is smooth concrete, the ceiling is about nine feet high, and in the middle are two columns that hold up the main beams of the house. Beneath the stairs is an enclosed space that contains the furnace, which can be loud when we need to run the heat, but that won’t be until next winter.
The rest of the basement is one big room with brick walls, except for a small guest suite that Dad set up for his aging mom many years ago before she died. I decide to use the small bedroom as a walk-in closet, and put my bed in the main area with curtains around it.
Before I move any of my stuff, I need to finish clearing a space. Aside from the household storage I already stacked up, we have several old pieces of furniture, rolled-up rugs, and boxes of Mom’s belongings taking up much of the floor space. I drag a small couch and two chairs into the corner by the weight set, and then stack as many other chairs on top of them as I can. There’s a big couch up against the wall that I’ll just leave there, and I put a table with a lamp beside it. When enough of the floor is clear I unroll the biggest rug, a heavy wool one that is largely black with some floral patterns. It’s dusty and I sneeze a few times, I’ll have to vacuum.
I run upstairs; Dad and Denise are already gone. Back in my old room, the window is still securely blocked and there’s no thumping. I keep an eye on it as I pull the bedding off my mattress. Then I drag my bed downstairs one piece at a time, only stopping when it’s fully assembled and I can lie down to rest for a bit.
Staring up at the exposed joists, with a brick wall beside me, I feel an exciting sense of possibility and freedom. Remaking my space is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and now I can do it just how I want. I’ll have to get some new posters for all this wall.
After vacuuming the entire basement, I stack the boxes of Mom’s stuff in a corner and then set up my laptop on her old desk beside them. I plug a speaker into it and blast Zendaya while I dance back and forth across the room, sorting out the clothes I’m going to keep. I take off my top and put on Mom’s bra, stuffed with socks, and then her multicolored patchwork hoodie. I keep dancing until my feet hurt.
…I’m scared of what it feels like to miss you, scared of what it feels like not to kiss you, scared of what it feels like to be alone…
My phone lights up with a text. It’s from Ben. I take it upstairs and put a dish of leftover pasta in the microwave before I reply. He texts me back immediately.
I’m glad you came out
Do you want to hang out after school tomorrow?
Like with the whole group again?
No, I mean like you and me
Cool, I’ll see you in the morning
I can barely eat, my stomach is in such turmoil. I can’t believe I have a date with Ben. Several times I pick up my phone and read the texts again, trying to reassure myself that it’s real. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it, maybe I should ask if he likes me. I start typing several times and keep erasing it. Finally I throw my phone on the table and get out some ice cream and eat it straight from the container, mind racing. What if my first kiss is tomorrow? Am I ready for this?
When I’ve finished off the ice cream I’m a little calmer. I put away my leftover pasta and go back downstairs. It’s getting late and I’m exhausted, so I take a quick shower and go to bed. I fall asleep quickly, dreaming about Ben.
I wake up suddenly less than an hour later. My faintly glowing clock reads 12:01. It vanishes suddenly and reappears as a shadow seems to pass in front of it.
I bolt upright in bed, grabbing for my phone on the nightstand, heart racing. Too scared to say anything. The shadow moves slowly across the wall in the glow of my laptop’s charging light, and just when it reaches the foot of my bed, and my fingers find my phone, I become unable to move.
I try to scream for help, even knowing there is nobody else in the house, but I can make no sound.
“Child, calm yourself.” It’s a woman’s voice, low and smooth, that seems to blow through the room like a gust of wind.
Out of the shadows a face materializes, translucent and unsmiling with dark irises and blazing white pupils. Her lips are full, her nose wide between high, sharp cheekbones. Then the rest of her form becomes visible, as if emerging from a dense fog. Straight silvery-black hair in tight braids reaches past her waist, and her cloak is a shifting star-filled void, like the night sky flowing across the surface of a river.
“I am here to help you, daughter of man. You have been poisoned. Calm yourself.”
She moves around to the side of my bed, gliding smoothly without any sound of footsteps. Not even her swishing garment makes a sound; her presence feels like a deep, heavy silence. She reaches out a ghostly gray hand and presses it to my chest, staring into my eyes. I feel something twist deep in my gut.
“This will hurt,” she says, and then my body is filled with searing agony, and a blinding rage that isn’t mine. It seems to go on forever.
The moment I can move again, I collapse back into my pillows with a scream that sounds far away. Through the fog of pain, I watch the strange woman pull her hand from my chest, wrapped up in an angry tangle of deep purple threads that thrash and snap, dripping like water, reaching desperately for my skin. She pulls it away from me and it changes direction, lunging for her face. She draws a circle in the air and thrusts the purple mass through. It vanishes and her hands comes out clean. She touches my shoulder and I flinch, but this time I’m filled with a calm warmth.
I lie still, staring at her for a long moment, feeling both compelled to trust her and afraid of doing so. “What was that?” I finally ask.
“The tool of a terrible sorcerer. He is trying to get into this world to corrupt it for his pleasure. Now rest, child, you are safe.”
She begins to fade away, and I sit up and grab her arm. “Wait, don’t go, I think I’ve seen him.”
For the first time I see some sort of emotion in her face. Surprise. “How is it that you have seen what is not in this reality?”
“I’ve been having the same dream over and over for weeks.” I describe my nightmare, and as I do, she begins to frown.
“Nightmares are known with this poison,” she says. “But if it had been in you for weeks, you should now be dead, and I would have failed. I do not understand.”
“What does the poison do? Why would a sorcerer want to kill me?”
“He needs a host. This poison seeks out your womb and grows there, until it is strong enough to take control of you. Then he can enter this world wearing your body as protection.”
I shiver and twist my fingers together in my lap. “Ma’am…what’s your name?”
“I have many names to many peoples. I am the builder of mountains and mother of forests.”
I hesitate for a moment, and then blurt out, “The poison didn’t work on me because I don’t have a womb.”
“But you are a woman, I can see your essence…ah…” She smiles then, the most kind, motherly smile. “I see it now. You shine so brightly that I missed it.”
My cheeks heat up and I stare down at my hands.
“Is there anything you would ask of me?” she says.
“Can you change me?”
“How would you be changed?”
“All I want is to be a real woman.”
“But you are.”
“Other people don’t see me that way! My body is wrong, I wake up terrified in the morning, my dad is embarrassed of me, I don’t have my mom anymore…” I’m interrupted by my body deciding now I must cry.
She sits beside me and wraps her void garment around my shoulders. It seems to drain away some of the grief, but I keep crying. “I cannot change everything,” she says. “Bringing back your mother, or changing the circumstances of your birth, these are beyond my skill. Your body and you are one. Your appearance can be altered, but the substance must remain the same.”
“You mean you can’t give me a uterus or ovaries?”
“I cannot unmake and remake you. Even if I could so defy the order of reality, the person I made would not be you.”
“Can you at least make me look more like a woman to everyone else?”
“I can do that. There may be a cost you don’t expect.”
“Whatever it is, I don’t care, I’ll pay it.”
“If you are certain, then I will do this for you.”
I hug her. There is no heartbeat or rush of breath, and she is strangely hot and cold at the same time. But I feel safe. An overwhelming drowsiness comes over me and she lays me down on my pillows as she stands up.
“Will I see you again?” I mumble.
“Only the universe knows, my child.”
The world spins away from me and I fall into the deepest sleep I’ve ever had.
I wake up with breasts.