“You’ll only make it hurt more, doing that.”
He jerked his head around. Not far away stood a black-haired, grey-eyed girl he recognized from class. Helen – something. Geary. “What’s it to you?” Ow.
“You need some ice on those,” she said. “Mr. Paredes will let us have some.”
Stupefied by her attention, he stood until she grabbed his arm and gave an impatient tug. He caught up to her, and didn’t think to shake loose from her grasp.
Mr. Paredes ran a small shop frequented by local children and adults. When he saw Sean’s bruises, he wrapped ice cubes in a clean towel and handed it over. “Not too much time on any one place,” he advised.
“Thank you, sir.” It paid to be polite. He’d learned that when he was a girl at the Academy. Manners gave you an advantage when dealing with adults. “My name is Sean.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sean. I see you’ve met the prettiest girl in town.”
Why were adults so silly around children?
Helen bought flavored ices for them both and they sat outside on a bench. The cold felt good on his swollen lip and face.
Why are you being nice to me? What’s your angle?
At school, she’d been surrounded by boys and girls who seemed to like her. When the boys presented her with frogs and bugs, she didn’t squeal and flinch away, but held the gifts high and cheered them on. They blushed and mumbled and ran off to find more prizes. There were better boys than he for her to befriend. Better girls, too.
Girls were hard to figure out, even as Sían. There was a secret language about them. They could smile in your face and swear eternal friendship, then turn on you in half a heartbeat. I must learn how to read them.
“Are you going to get into trouble?” she asked.
“Your face. Adults don’t like kids fighting.”
“No, I won’t.” They don’t care.
Apparently sensing that she’d asked the wrong thing, she didn’t pry.
He used the ice pack until it melted to nearly nothing, and returned the towel to Mr. Paredes with thanks.
“I have to get home,” Helen said. “Mom always wants to know about my first day at school.”
Ask to walk her home. That’s what boys do for girls. “May I walk you home?”
“Thank you, Sean, you may.”
Imitating a movie he’d seen, he offered his arm.
As they walked, he avoided analyzing his feelings. He wanted to enjoy this for as long as it would last: her arm in his, the occasional touch of her other hand, the return of the friendly sparkle.
At the entrance to her building, he offered to repay her for the ice treat. She refused. “You can buy for us tomorrow. Thank you for walking me home.”
“You’re welcome.” A warm glow formed in his stomach.
He had taken the long way home, to keep the warmth as long as possible. It was stupid, she could turn out to be a bitch like the ones at school, he might be setting himself up for disappointment, but he could not do anything else. She’d been nice to him.
All trace fled as he unlocked the apartment door. His parents were home.
His mother turned a loveless gaze on him. “What happened to you?”
“He got the shit beat out of him, Siobhan.” His father glared at him. “You aren’t a girl anymore. Act like it.”
Both smelled of alcohol.
“Sure.” He held up his book bag. “I have homework.”
He went to school. The boys who had beaten him waited for the other shoe to drop.
There had been plenty of witnesses to the beating, so no-one called child welfare services on him. It was no crime for parents to think their children needed to ‘toughen up’ and not complain to school authorities about bullying. So, all the boys got was a talking-to by the headmaster.
Class seating arrangements kept Helen from him. At lunch, she sat beside him. “I had a nice time --- I mean, except for you getting beat up --- yesterday,” she said, after making certain no-one could hear them.
“So did I.”
Today, she spent time with him.
After school, he bought the flavored ices for them, and walked her home.
She made his life bearable. During the school day, he looked for her. At night, he held their time together close to his heart.
None of which kept him from watching his classmates. Everyone belonged to at least one little group within the mass of students, or even to several in one way or another, and each group had its rules. If he knew them, he’d know what to do.
Helen tried to bring him into her circle. There were trees to climb, streams to wade, and old buildings to explore. Mr. Paredes and other shopkeepers dispensed the fuel of childhood. At times, he could almost forget Sían, his female self.
But he knew he could never escape what he was, and this formed a barrier not even Helen could breach. All he could do was try to disguise that wall.
Three weeks into the term, she said, “I need some help with geometry.”
“Oh? Mr. Jackson’s willing to help….”
“Don’t.” Mischief danced in her eyes. “You aren’t dumb. You’re smart.”
“I don’t know why you’re pretending, but you aren’t dumb. You’re bored because you know it already.” She chuckled. “Can you meet me at the factory?”
“Hey, you two,” the PE teacher said, “get on the field. We have a game.”
‘The factory’ was long abandoned. When they’d first broken in, he’d been so fascinated by the remaining machinery that he had ignored Helen and the others.
She sat on a stone wall, her books open. Geometry. “I always think I’m about to get it, and then I don’t.”
“Show me where you’re having trouble.” He saw it immediately. She’d never figure it out if he simply showed her, and she would resent him for doing that.
A few nudges from him, and she lit up. “I get it. Thanks.” To his surprise, she threw an arm around his neck and squeezed.
Confused by the sudden rush of feelings, he broke away and backed off a safe distance.
“Why do you like me?” Tell me the truth. Tell me. “Why are you nice to me?”
Plainly, she’d never thought about it, because it took her a long time to answer. “You’re different from the other kids. I can’t say how. I don’t know the words. They think you’re sort of weird, but I don’t.” He didn’t back away as she approached. “I think you’re nice.”
“No, I’m not. I’m not nice. I’m a freak. The other kids don’t play with you so much anymore because of me.” That pleased, yet appalled, him.
“It’ll take time for them to get to know you. That’s what Mom says. You aren’t like me. You’re like --- like a puzzle box. Do you know what those are?”
“Puzzle boxes look like regular boxes, but you have to find the secret lock to open them.” She touched his cheek. “That’s you. There’s more inside than I can see.”
The universe contracted. For a brief, breathless eternity, he and Helen were the only creatures in existence.
“Hey, you kids.”
They jumped, looked around to see the foot patrol officer sauntering towards them. “Yes, sir?”
With the right mix of sternness and kindness, the cop explained, “This property is off-limits for a reason. Lots of dangerous stuff around.” He smiled. “I know it’s near-irresistible, but you can’t play here. Go on home.”
After he left her at her building, Helen thought about that afternoon. Why had he asked why she liked him? It was obvious to her. Should have been obvious to anyone. He was a nice boy. Why had he stared at her that way? It scared her a bit.
That night, as his parents slept off their binge, he looked up puzzle boxes on the Internet. For the next several hours, he marveled at the ingenuity and craftsmanship of those who made these puzzles. Not mere boxes with secret latches: true puzzles, with hidden compartments, cunningly joined panels showing no seams, not even a clue how to begin.
Helen was home sick. The day, begun with a promise of warmth, turned chill even with the sun full in the sky. Sean sat by himself, watching the other students.
Two months since the beating. Two months since meeting her.
The girls at St. Louis had seemed such mysteries. Now he understood that wasn’t true. I didn’t have any experience.
His two personae had slightly different personalities, whether because they were different sexes or from some other reason he didn’t know. The result was that when Sean remembered Sían’s experiences, he felt as if he looked into another’s mind. It was the same when Sían remembered Sean’s experiences.
Now he had everyone in his grade-level sorted out. The younger and older children were harder to place, since the grades rarely mingled except at the beginning and end of the day.
An engine changed gears, chuffed loudly. Idly curious, he redirected his attention.
A large, battered garbage truck with lifting arms approached the huge trash containers at the edge of the playground. The arms rose from their positions either side of the truck, up, over, and down. Then the most amazing thing happened.
Entranced, he watched the huge, curved arms and the lifting prongs adjust almost as if they were flesh and blood instead of metal. A lift here, a lowering there, and the prongs slid into the sleeves on the container. The lift motor changed frequency and the arms heaved the container up and over, upside-down over the back of the truck. The arms shook the container the way a person might shake a box, then up and over to place the container on the ground. As a final touch, the mechanical arms hooked the lid and lifted it to fall shut.
Father fixes things like that. When he isn’t drunk.
Tools didn’t care if you were a girl or a boy. There were machines to lift and pull, so even a woman could work with heavy things.
He knocked shyly on the apartment door. The woman who opened it looked sort of like Helen, except her hair was dark brown and her eyes were hazel. “Yes?”
Too late now. “I’m Sean, a friend of Helen’s. From school. I, uh, brought her homework assignment.”
“You’re the mystery man in her life. Come in.”
What was it about adults? He’d caught a hint of patronizing in her tone. “Thank you. How is she?”
“She’s feeling much better. Just a bit of flu. I’ll tell her you’re here.”
He looked around.
Nice place. Much nicer than the two-bedroom he shared with his parents. None of the Geary family’s furniture came from yard sales or second-hand stores.
“She’ll see you, now.”
There was an actual hallway to her bedroom.
Steeling himself for a distressingly pink, fluffy bedroom, he stepped through the door.
No pink. A few ruffles, mostly on the curtains and bedspread, which had a nice floral pattern. The walls were painted a nice hue of blue-green, decorated with a few magazine pictures.
“Hey, I’m over here.”
Helen was propped against the headboard of her bed, a lap-table with laptop on her knees, and a box of nasal tissue ready to hand. She was pale, but sparkled at the sight of him.
“I’ve never been in a girl’s room.” Except when I was the girl.
“Don’t worry, I do have stuffed animals.” She held up a fluffy stuffed cat. “Thanks for coming.”
“I missed you. It’s cold outside without you.” He pulled the paper from his bag. “Our homework.”
“I missed you, too. Come over here. I’m not contagious.”
They talked of small things, then he described, with pantomime, the way the truck emptied the bin. At her big grin, he asked, “What is it?”
“You should see your face. You’re lit up like the sun. I like it.”
“You do?” Really?” All this time, and he still could not quite believe she liked him, period.
He stayed until Helen’s mother announced dinner.
Phys. Ed. class:
“Oh, hell, Treil and Geary are on the same team.”
“No fair! They always win.”
Those, and similar complaints, whirled around the gym.
Basketball had arrived in Hontwarl in the late 20th Century, following Amerisian football and baseball. Now, every school had a court. Unlike many other sports, it could be played indoors or outdoors, making it perfect for the long Hontwarl winters. Because it, like soccer, relied mostly on skill, physical coordination and endurance, it was also perfect for mixed teams of pre-pubescent children.
Trials of skill, coordination and endurance were Treil’s specialty in either sex. With Helen as team-mate, he could count on scoring more points than otherwise.
After the first game of Ameris-style football, he knew that tests of strength were not his forte. Even at this age, he knew he would never grow up to be a weight-lifter.
Of course, this was second grade, so none of the children showed abnormal talent in any sport. They were as likely to get tangled in their own feet as to pass the ball.
Sean’s classmates didn’t mind his athletic skill, despite their complaints. Helen liked him, which was sufficient reason to cut him slack.
Some of their older siblings weren’t as forgiving.
Sean watched his father work on the family car. With skill born of years of experience, the man changed belts, tightened bolts and adjusted the timing.
He so rarely spoke to either parent that his father gaped blankly for several seconds. “Yes?”
“I want to fix things the way you do.”
Emotions chased so quickly that he couldn’t follow. He’d gotten very good at reading his parents. Mother couldn’t stand him (or her). At times, it seemed Father wanted --- something, before he turned away.
“I can do that sort of work as a girl or a boy. I dress right, nobody will ever know.” Coveralls weren’t designed to be pretty.
“Let me see what you can do. Follow my instructions.”
Two hours later, his father wiped a smudge of grease from his cheek. “Not bad. I think, with some practice, that you could be --- like me.”
Kind words from his father. Sean quivered, but held his peace. Don’t ruin it.
Winter came, and the older people talked of how it used to snow in Hontwarl, rather than sleet or rain.
When cold rain or sleet caught them, he and Helen took advantage of the excuse to enter the abandoned buildings they liked to explore. Some were dangerous because of rotting floors or support members, others by reason of old equipment with parts that might still move. One was dangerous because the owners had left nearly-full cylinders and tanks of flammable gases (in violation of the law). He’d memorized the names on the cylinders the first time, and now knew the dangers if they should break a valve or light a match. Vagrants were another danger.
Other times, they hunkered down in the public library, reading above their grade-level, or at her apartment.
He could forget his secret, at least for a while.
Spring arrived, with plenty of rain, but not too much. The bordering mountains made something of a rain shadow, allowing the crops to thrive instead of drown.
“Hey, we need two more!” Bobby Dixon called, bouncing the black-and-white football off either knee.
Helen and Sean set down their books and joined the game. This day, it seemed he couldn’t go wrong, as every kick sent the ball right where he wanted. When the game ended, Bobby suggested he try out for the team next year.
Ah, hell. “I can’t, Bobby. We’re moving at the end of the school year.”
“Darn. Well, do it at your next school.”
As they picked up their books, Helen asked, “When were you going to tell me?” Her lip quivered.
He looked at his feet. Right foot still on the right, left foot still on the left. “I – I couldn’t --- I wanted to --- Damn. I don’t want to go.” I don’t want to change I don’t want to move I want to stay here.
“Sean.” She put her arms around him. “I didn’t mean to scold.”
“I know. But it’s not all bad. I’ll be back for fourth form.”
“Yeah. It’s weird, but that’s how it is.”
“And we have a whole month.” The impish gleam reappeared. “I know where we can catch some excellent frogs.”
The change started a week later. Once, it took about a week to change sex. Now, it took roughly 24 hours, but in exchange, the child of Siobhan and Howard Treil spent three hours curled up on the floor in agony as genitalia changed.
Sían Treil uncurled, doing her best to relax. The worst was over, but her body wasn’t finished.
Carefully, she got to her feet and climbed onto her bed. She looked at her hands.
At this age, clothed boys and girls could only be told apart by their clothing, hairstyles, or possessions. As long as she was careful, no-one would know.
Would Helen notice?
What was that feeling? I wish I could talk to someone. Helen, maybe --- What?
No. Impossible. She clamped her hands over her mouth to stop the giggles.
I’m jealous. Of myself.
Too funny. Sean had a friend, and she was jealous.
If Helen noticed any difference in her friend, she probably put it down to the impending move. Sían still worried that the girl would spot a difference that was difficult to explain. I can’t lose her.
“See you later,” Helen said, sprinting up the stairs of her building.
The girl’s effect on Sían was different from her effect on Sean. A well-timed word or look could make Sean tongue-tied and silly, or send him to the moon. He lit up inside at the thought of her. Sían lit up, but was never knocked for a loop. Perhaps, she thought, there really were differences between boys and girls beyond differing sexes.
Brad Dixon and three of his friends. “You’re a hard guy to catch.” He squared his shoulders. “You made Bobby look stupid.”
“When?” Sean didn’t share many classes with Bobby.
A hard shove that almost knocked her down. “That game. You always do that. He has a chance to get out of here if nobody messes it up.”
What? What did he mean?
“I’m gonna bust you up.”
Sían feinted right, ran left, as fast as she could from this twelve-year-old psycho. She had a slight lead. If she could ----
They tackled her.
Soapy water swirled the drain. The shower ran full blast, patting her head and back, her face when she turned to it. Oh God oh God oh God make it go away it won’t go away I can still feel it dirty so dirty no matter how hard I scrub I still feel
Their disgusting hands on her body, their anger turned to shock when they discovered she was a girl, the way they pawed at her, disbelieving what their eyes and hands told them.
It could have been worse, she knew that but it didn’t matter didn’t matter because it was bad enough what they’d done the way Brad had poked her with his filthy fingers Oh God I can still feel it make it go away ----
She huddled on the shower floor, shaking with tears she could not shed. She’d already cried her eyes dry.
I want to talk to someone, I want a brother who isn’t me, who can hold me and tell me everything will be all right….
Cold anger came from somewhere. She let it fill her, freeze-burning her pain.
She dried off, dressed, and curled onto the bed. Cold. Fire. Temperatures so cold they burned. Dry ice becomes a gas as it warms.
Her eyes opened. Hard sapphires gleamed as she smiled.
She had a whole year to perfect her plan.