by Joe Casey

Here, put these on, Jade signs. She fishes something out of her pocket, hands it to me.

Okay, I sign back. I put them on; they're gloves made out of some kind of fishnet; they feel strange on my hands. I make fists, stretching them, watching my diamond-patterned skin squeeze out, like snake scales, remembering that snakes shed their scales when they outgrow them.

Here, hold this. A flower, white, beautiful, faintly exotic, a lily, my grandmother's favorite.

Jade …

Just wait a minute. She grins slyly. There's something else. She goes into the other pocket of her jacket, hands something else - several somethings - to me. I look down, then back up at Jade.

Jade …

Just put them on, Sky.

Okay. It's just that they're … a little … kinky, maybe?

Her grin widens. I have no idea what you mean.

What she's handed me are several bracelets of black leather studded with stainless steel spikes. They look like -

I match her grin. Are you sure they don't go … well, down … there? I jerk my head vaguely to points south.

Well, no … unless you've grown something overnight that you haven't told me about.

I chuckle. You'd be the first one I'd tell if that had happened. It'd be a miracle.

I hand Jade back the lily, then I put the things on; like the gloves, they feel strange, not me … but I think I understand at this point what Jade's after. Anything else?

Uh … nope, that's it, her hands flash. She hands the lily back to me, holds up her camera. Start workin' it, baby …

I work it, as much it as I have.

Jade has my back up against a willow tree; its limp branches hang down, almost touching the pond behind it. The bark is rough even through the thin cloth of my t-shirt, but I like the feeling of it. Jade runs me through several poses until she finally gets one that she likes, starts in with the camera.

Jade has been my best friend forever. We've known each other since second grade; even back then we felt like outcasts and bonded over that. The intervening years have only strengthened that bond as we became outcasts of a different sort. She has been my friend before this and will be my best friend - perhaps my only friend - when it's all done.

I should probably be more specific about this …

My name is Schuyler; it's not the name I was born with - that's Leah. Leah's okay; I haven't minded being Leah … but I'm Schuyler now. I chose it because I like how it feels in my mouth when I say it - the hiss of the first bit, then the catch in my throat next and finally the press of tongue behind my teeth - and because everybody misspells it, and I can shorten it to Sky, which reminds me of air and light and openness.

And freedom.

At this point, Leah's like … oh, I don't know … a sister, maybe, a fraternal twin, like me but not. She had my face and my body and I borrowed both of them when I decided to be Schuyler and I made a few changes. I hope she doesn't mind.

When Jade's decided that she's got enough, we break and sit side-by-side at the base of the willow tree, watching its branches dance and wave in the breeze. The lake is calm and peaceful, speckled here and there with ducks and geese. On a large, flat rock in the middle of the lake I count ten - no, twelve - turtles basking in the April afternoon. They're all various sizes, moms and dads and daughters and sons and they all look happy, as much as one can tell from their expressions.

Jade should have had me hold a turtle instead of a lily; animals inside a hard, protective shell that protects them from the outside world … but that might have been a little too obvious. The flower itself almost gives it away, something feminine and exotic about it, innocent and erotic at the same time.

Do you think anybody will get it? I sign.

Jade shrugs. Don't know. Maybe. If they know you. If they don't, then it's just a stupid photograph.

So, I take stupid photographs.

No, she counters. I take stupid photographs. You just get to be cute in them.

Cute? Am I really cute?

Jesus, Sky … of course you are. You always were.

Was Leah cute? Maybe. When she was little. When she was older and it felt like somebody else was crawling around inside her head, she didn't feel so cute. She felt crazy, until she understood it and opened the door to Schuyler, the little son of a bitch.

I'm not sure what I am, now. Caught between both worlds, maybe, neither fish nor fowl. A turtle, happy on land and in the water, not belonging wholly to either.

Jade extends her middle finger, a sign which needs no translation. Fuck that. You're always Sky, no matter what. She smiles. A work in progress.

I slip off the … well, we'll call them bracelets … and hand them back to Jade, grinning. Where the fuck did you get these?

Amazon. Where else?

Seriously? They have a cock ring section? I must have missed it.

Bitch, you can buy anything on Amazon …

You can. I'd be afraid my father would find out and wonder just what the hell was going on.

Jade is silent for a moment, then her hands flash. I think I called you bitch

You did. I smile. That particular title is reserved only for you.

She takes my hand, grasps it. Thanks. So, about that … I have an awkward question. Isn't there … I mean, aren't you supposed to figure out how you do want to be called?

I grin. Well, maybe not bitch, but … I frown, thinking. Schuyler's fine.

No, she responds. I mean … well, he/him/it, she … they …

I grin. Having pronoun trouble, are we?

She hits me on the shoulder. Stop it! I'm trying to understand this.

So am I. I think about it. I don't know. I guess I'm trying for he. Him. Whatever.

Jade falls silent again; I watch a strange, sad look settle on her beautiful dark face. I miss her, you know?

I know.

Jade picks up the lily, runs a finger along a delicate white shell of petal. She turns to me and smiles. Do you remember?

I do.

Another photograph of me, in her room, from several years ago. I am standing at a window, looking out into the wreckage of her back yard, at the rotting wood framework of a swing set, at the rusted hulk of a barbecue grill, at a stack of used and roadworn tires by the garage. Jade's parents have never been particularly neat people, which is perhaps the reason why Jade herself - and this room - is a quiet oasis of order and sanity.

I am wearing one of Jade's shirts; on me, it seems like a dress. What the viewer - you, I suppose - cannot see is that I am naked at the window. I'm not looking out the window, but down at myself, at what I am and do not want to be. My body, now, seems almost a stranger to me, little handfuls of flesh here and here … my breasts. Jade says they are perfect. I look some more, down at the triangular thatch of hair, there, and the void it covers, the intricately pleated geometry of my nascent femininity, a thing I am supposed to cherish and celebrate.

It frightens me.

Behind me, on the bed, is Jade, her slender, dark woman's body splayed out, breasts puddled on her chest, the long hollows of her belly and thighs, and there, at the middle of her, the wild, forested recesses of a country I am only beginning to explore.

We have just done something … not making love, nothing that involved, but it had been nearly that, mostly involving touch, a first reconnaissance mission of each other's bodies.

In that photograph, I am thinking of everything and nothing at once. I have been told that we cannot choose who and what we want to be, in that respect, but for me, that day, there had been a choice. The little creature scrabbling around in my head is beginning to take on a shape and a name and he - yes, he - is becoming more and more insistent about what he does and does not want, and I am beginning to understand that one of the things he does not want is Jade herself, at least in that respect.

I turn to Jade, to try to begin to articulate these things, and perhaps she intuits what I am about to tell her, because her hands flash. Stop. I watch as she reaches for her camera - it's always within reach - and brings it up to her face.

What about you? Jade asks. Do you miss her?

Sometimes. I think my dad does, even though he'll never say that.

He still loves you, Sky.

I know he does … but it has to be hard on a parent, to watch their child become something completely different.

But he didn't fight it.

I smile. No, he didn't. And I'll always love him for it.

We fall silent, again; this, I think, is the best part of our friendship: that we can enjoy the silences between us as much as the words. I wish I could be what Jade wants me to be, but I can't.

You hear from your mom, lately? Jade signs.

No, I reply. Not much. She's got a place of her own downtown, somewhere, but I haven't wanted to go there. Not after what she said.

It was pretty bad, Jade agrees. You must hate her.

Well, you see … I don't, not really. I … well, I guess I feel sorry for her. She wants me to be her little girl again. I know that that's not what I am.

Leah hated exercise, hated the very thought of it, even as she dreamed of becoming Schuyler, preferring - perhaps a better word would be clinging to - a willowy kind of body, barely there, trying to escape notice. Schuyler, in contrast, swears by it. Schuyler wants the broad shoulders and the chest and the six-pack and the Apollo's belt, wants all of it, wants the ripped and shredded, the bombed, the swole … even if he can't have what he will always want, that special dollop of flesh swinging proud and free and absurd, subject to arousal at the most inopportune of times, a kind of weapon, a weapon to be used against weakness.

Schuyler does not want to be weak.

The tea helps. It makes me want to do things, boy things, guy things. Maybe foolish things, but that's where the tea can take you. By tea, of course, I mean testosterone; tea is just my own personal joke. With it, Schuyler can shape and mold and twist and form himself into a better version of himself, sleek and muscular and strong. Without it, Schuyler wouldn't exist, would be only a joke, a pale imitation, a ghost.

Schuyler doesn't always talk about himself in the third person; sometimes, I think that Schuyler is a role I've adopted, some project I've taken on. One that will last my lifetime.

But, exercise is why I'm here on a Saturday, at school, in the gym. The school lets us do it, if we want. Saturday is better for me, anyway. I am almost always alone. Most everyone here at school knows who I am, what I've done; it was hard to ignore: one May I left as Leah, the next September I came back as Schuyler. Most don't seem to mind it, but some do. What a few of them say to me borders almost upon bullying, but I'm used to it and I don't do anything. When I opened the door to Schuyler, I think I opened the door to this, as well. Leah … well, Leah always seemed to be happiest in the background, coasting along the edges, too afraid to say anything or do anything to call attention to herself. Leah seemed always locked up inside herself, happier alone in her room, happier with books and poetry and writing in her diary, trying to understand what her darkest thoughts were trying to tell her, trying to ignore them.

Schuyler does not like being in the background, but Schuyler is smart enough to know that if he's going to be good at this, he's going to have own it, own it completely.

I hoist the weights over my head, I curl the legs, the arms, I do the bench press, the squats and extensions, and with every repetition Schuyler claims his place and Leah goes over against the wall and watches.

When I am done here, I go home and to my room and I shower, sluicing the sweat of my exertions away, down the drain, wash away the weakness and the timidity. I look at myself in the mirror when I am done, judging myself dispassionately, deciding where I need to go next, what I need to work on, what will be the next step on this journey. And, before I dress, there is one more ritual I must perform.

Jade's not the only photographer; I, too, take pictures … but where Jade seeks to create art, I seek only to document and to record. It's always the same, always the same three poses - front, side, rear - and I have it down to my own kind of art, at this point. It took some practice, at first; now, it comes easily to me. How to set up my phone's camera, how to pose, how to light it.

Pose … click … turn … click … turn … click … and, done.

When I am done, I go to my camera, save the images to a place that I hope is hidden securely away; no one else but I needs to see these things. I date them, add them to the many hundreds of images already in the folder. I scroll to the top of the folder, to those first few days right after my surgery, my body still bruised and bandaged and swollen, still feminine, still Leah.

The images play out like a stop-motion movie; the changes are subtle, over time, but unmistakable. I scroll and watch Leah become Schuyler. As soon as I was able, I began to exercise, began losing myself in it, began finding myself in it. It scared me, at first, to see what I was doing to myself, to watch newfound muscles replace thin, spidery limbs, to watch my upper torso broaden and deepen, to watch my soft belly harden. But, I persisted.

And even there, at the middle of me, even that changed. What was once tucked demurely away sprang forth, modeled itself on its twin, asserted itself, peeping through the myriad folds. There is, I know, one more thing I might do to myself, to complete the circle, so to speak … but it can wait. This, for now, is good enough.


Jade grins, pulls out her portfolio, opens it to a particular photograph.

Two photographs, actually, side by side, on the same sheet. The one on the right is the one she took at the lake, that day, in front of the willow tree. The other is the one she took that day in her room, with me at the window, in her shirt.

I stare at the picture, then back up at Jade.

Jade …

Her smile falters and she frowns. What? You don't like it?

No, I … I do like it. I just … well … it's pretty personal, don't you think?

But it's so perfect! she signs. It's the two sides … before and after … light and dark … he and she.

I breathe out, slowly, trying to calm myself. I know Jade means well, but I don't know if I'm quite ready to share that much of myself, not yet.

I know, I sign. I understand that. But … you know what we had just done before you took that photograph.

But no one else will, Sky. Maybe that's why I like it so much. You looked so innocent and pure at that moment, and we had just done …

Something else happened that day, I sign.

She frowns. What?

I think you know.

Slowly, she nods. I think I do. That was when Schuyler showed up, right?

I nod.

Schuyler who didn't want anything to do with the likes of me, she adds, a sad smile on her lips.

I sigh. It's not … that's not what it was, Jade. I never meant to hurt you.

I know you didn't.

I don't know if she's angry at me because I have issues with her photography or because I'm not Leah anymore.

You're going to have to let go at some point, Sky, she adds.

What do you mean?

She waves a hand at me, at how I look, at how I dress. This. The … facade. The mask. Putting on boy's clothes and stuffing that god-awful rubber thing down the front of your pants and growing a beard and getting ripped don't make you a boy any more than putting on a dress and heels and makeup and perfume makes me a straight girl. I know what I am. I'm not sure that you do, not yet.

I'm doing the best I can, Jade.

I know you are … but - fuck, Sky! - get there already, you know? You may look like a boy and act like a boy, but you're not, and you never will be. And that's okay, you know? You're stuck between one or the other … and maybe that's not a bad place to be, you know? But I feel like you're trying to hide Leah from everybody, and you can't, not if you ever hope to be with somebody. They're going to have to know the truth at some point, or you'll never share what you are with anybody else, and that would be … sad.

The thing is, is that she's right. She knows that and I know that. I knew - intellectually - what would happen to me when I started this process … but actually watching it happen is something else entirely, and it frightens me. Every day that I do this, Sky takes one more piece of Leah and tucks it away, asserts himself in muscle and sinew and hair and desires that I don't quite understand.

Jade and I look at each other, silently.

And, I can't help it. A little bit of Leah elbows her way to the front: a tear slides down my face, followed by another.

Jade smiles, sadly, reaches out and flicks the tears away with her beautiful hands. Oh, fuck, Sky … don't do that.

I'm sorry. I can't help it.

Look, she signs. Okay. I'll … I'll pull the photograph. I won't put it up. I -

I reach out and take her hands in mine, effectively shutting her up. I let go. No, I respond. Don't do that. Put it up. You're right, you know. God damn you, Jade - you're always right. I'm tired of being afraid. And it's a beautiful photograph.

Are you sure?

Yes, I respond, but even as I sign that, my fingers do the equivalent of a slur, uncertain, unsure. I look away from Jade, my heart racing. I turn back to her. Yes, I sign, more strongly. Yes.

She takes me then, in her arms … effectively shutting me up, and we surrender to this most basic and instinctive of gestures, one that goes beyond words and beyond the intricate dance of our hands.

And this is why she's my best friend.

And then, one day, he is there.

Whatever else I feel about Jade, I love watching her run. If anyone is born to do anything, then Jade is born to run, with her long legs and her wiry torso, a strange combination of masculine and feminine, hair shorn down to a nub on her scalp, her skin panther-dark and sleek and shining with her exertions. She is beautiful; the part of me that responds to her beauty still longs for it, still wishes I could lose myself in her and what she represents, and what she has to offer.

At the end of the race, both teams mill about on the track, celebrating victories, commiserating losses, talking about the races, dissecting them … he should have and if I'd only and I can't believe she and all the rest, things I don't understand, perhaps can't understand. I am not a competitor in anything. Everything I do, I do for myself, I think; perhaps I'm wrong, perhaps I'm up there as well, clawing for the best grades, the approbation of my teachers, the rewards that come from that. I wonder what Jade wants from it all, in the end. Where will she be in ten years, twenty? Where will I be?

Something catches my eye, some flash of palest white, and I look, catch a boy pulling up the hem of his singlet, wiping the sweat from his face. I am treated to the slim, muscular torso of a runner, muscles sketched under his alabaster/ivory skin, a trail of brown hair diving down from his navel, small brown-pink buds of his nipples crowning his pectorals. The singlet comes back down and he sees me looking, narrows his gaze, and I look away.

Look back. At him, staring back at me. Look away. My skin tingles.

He's not on Jade's team; he doesn't go to our school. The colors of his singlet mark him as from a rival school, across town, a school I know of by reputation - not in the best part of town, they say, those to whom that means something - but not by familiarity.

He's cute, I think … not pretty, not like too many boys try to be. There's a roughness to him, a country kind of look, a patchy beard outlining a strong jaw on a flat, round face and a snub of a nose and eyes set wide in his head.

I know enough about him to find him, I know, do all the stalking things, if I'm interested. Am I? But, then, here's Jade, triumphant and we hug and laugh and dance, and he, too, is set upon by happy teammates, another victor.

Corbin. His name is Corbin. High school websites are careful; they try not to give too much away. Others are not so careful; Corbin shows up here and there, usually among other runners, but the captions spell it out. There is one shot of him alone, dressed in nothing but running shorts and shoes, running cross-country. I look at that image far longer than is necessary. His body is lean and thin, the body common to all runners, something coltish about it. His face is grim with concentration, with trying to see the thing through, this compulsion to run, unable to resist it; Jade is the same way. The race in question took place sometime during the spring, during warm weather; his shorts are soaked through with his sweat, which shines like diamonds on his sun-browned body.

Is he doing the same, I wonder? Is he trying to figure me out? There is nothing much to go on, I know; I haven't left too many tracks. He's going to have to be more clever about it. If he cares.

The one-sided thing between me and Corbin grows into something very nearly an obsession; I scour the internet for images of him, squirrel them away on my laptop, spend far too long looking at them, trying to imagine the boy behind them. I go to every track meet that I can with Jade, but - of course - he's not at most of them.

Finally, I do the thing that I resist; once more, I dive into the web and call up the schedule for his school's track team, and I start going to these meets, without Jade. What would she make of me, of this, I wonder? Would she understand it? Would she just grin and roll her eyes? Part of me feels guilty for doing this, like I'm going around her, behind her back … but she's the one who told me to get on with things.

I'm walking across the vast space of the station towards the temporary partitions set up to display the art when I stop. There's somebody standing in front of Jade's photograph and my knees go all rubbery and my heart starts beating faster in my chest when I realize that it's him, the boy from the track meet.


My first instinct is to turn on my heel and start walking the other way; fortunately, other instincts kick in and I impel myself forward towards him. I think of Jade's advice, take a deep breath, order myself across the stone floor, step by step. He glances at me quickly as I come to a stop beside him, and then he does a double-take and turns to face me, his eyes narrowing. I nod. He looks back and forth from me to the picture; it's almost comical, but I don't dare laugh.

I can now fill in that fleeting glimpse of him from earlier, and my earlier impression holds up: his beauty is not a conventional one, not practiced and honed (and boys can be just as vain as girls); there's something very simple and homespun about him, something sweet and boyish.

He says something; I have to concentrate to figure it out. I'm used to signing - from my dad, from Jade, from others - and not to reading lips, but I can do it. "This is you, isn't it?" he says, smiling.

I point to my ears, shake my head; baby talk - me no hear good. He grins wider.

"Oh, no, you're fine … they're still attached to your head, if that's what you were worried about."

I chuckle. "Never hurts to check," I say, hoping that I've actually supplied air to vocal cords whose end product I cannot hear … but my throat buzzes, so something is coming out. I just hope it's English. Most people are put off when they hear me speak; it's not something I like to do. This is a last resort, because I suddenly feel the need to say something to this person so that he won't immediately go away.

He gives me a thumbs-up. "Very important." He sticks out a hand. "I'm Corbin."

I know this, of course, but I am not supposed to. I take his hand; his grip is strong. Mine probably feels like squeezing a wad of wet paper towels, but I give it my all. "I'm Sky."


I nod. "Short for … Schuyler." As much as I like how my name feels in my mouth, it's a bit of … well, a mouthful, if I actually have to say it.

"Schuyler," he repeats. It's strange to see how little of my name ends up on the lips; it's not like saying pop or boo or mow, which is why I hate reading lips. He nods his head. "Sky. I like it." I watch as his gaze does a quick up-and-down, from head to toe. "Anyway … I'm right, right? This is you?"

"Yes," I respond, and carefully go on. "They're both me, actually."

I can see he's not surprised to hear that. "I … thought so." I can see that he's about to lose himself thinking about that - about all of that - and I don't want him to go too far.

"Do you have a piece in the exhibit?" I ask.

He smiles, a one-sided grin that's goofy and charming at the same time, a little self-deprecating and winsome. "I do."

"Show me?"

He does; I follow him around and over to another partition; on it, dominating it, is a large black and white photograph of what looks like Kansas prairie, a long, flat swath of it under a sky that seems to press it even flatter. But when I get up to the image and really look at it, what I had assumed was a photograph resolves itself into a pencil drawing.

I turn to him. "You drew this?"

He nods, flushing. "Yeah. This is one of my favorite places."

"Corbin, it's … it's beautiful."

The flush deepens; he rolls his eyes, rolls his shoulders, shrugging off the praise. "Thanks. Took me forever to finish it."

"It's amazing." And, it is; even I can see that. A lot of what's up on the partitions is student work, still rough and untrained. Even Jade's photograph is a little too … obvious, maybe, a little too don't you get the point I'm trying to make, stupid? as it challenges the viewer. Of course, I really can't say anything, because I don't have the balls - so to speak - to put up anything of my own. Corbin's piece is one that draws you in slowly, revealing itself in deeper and deeper layers the longer you look at it.

"You got anything here?" Corbin asks.

"No. I'm just here because of Jade. She's the one who took those photographs."

"Ah. Your … friend, from the track meet."

I can almost hear the pause in his voice, and I know what he's hinting at. "Yeah," I respond. "She's been my best friend forever, I think." I hope that he understands best friend to mean just that and nothing more. To my relief, he leaves it at that; maybe he's already ticked off that box, but I hope not. I don't know how to say that, though. I just met him, but I want this to be something.

"She's an amazing runner," he adds.

"I know. I love watching her run. She's pretty amazing at a lot of things. She … well, she's been good through all of …" I trail off, hoping he'll fill in the blanks. Well, the ones about me, about what I am … not about anything between me and Jade.

Something passes over his face, something I can't quite read. "Yeah," he manages. "I'll bet." And he glances away, at something over my shoulder, and a shiver of regret passes through me. I've lost him; he followed the trail to its end and didn't like the scenery.

But then he surprises me. "You, uh - you want to get some coffee, maybe?" I turn, and see that what drew his attention was a coffee shop tucked into a corner of the space, and a little ember of hope flares inside me.

"Sure," I respond. "I'd love to."

There's something here, I think, something just beneath the surface. The more we talk, the more I understand that there's something at work beneath the ball cap and the faded work shirt - Teddy? Who's Teddy? - and the denims shot full of holes and the work boots. I chide myself - who am I to judge books by covers, anyway? - and force myself to look at the boy underneath all of that. I don't mean that I'm imagining him naked (well, but I am …) but rather I'm trying to imagine the brain at work inside him. This is the brain, I tell myself, that made that beautiful drawing I'd just seen.

He's not stupid, I know that. He wants people to think that, maybe, because of the things he feels, things he dare not share with others, because they're the kinds of things a boy like him is not supposed to think about. Am I one of those things he's not supposed to think about? I think he probably has me figured out … and he doesn't seem to mind.

As much as we can, we talk. I have to concentrate; even so, I miss half of what he's saying, because he forgets, sometimes, that he has to turn and look directly at me. I reach out and tap him on the forearm when he forgets.

At one point, he makes a face.

"I wish I could -" he gets out, before he stops.


He flickers his fingers in the air, so much static, meaningless, but I understand. "Sign."

"Ah," I respond. "Piece of cake. You'll pick it up in no time."

He frowns, then smiles. "Bullshit."

"I can spell your name," I offer.


I slowly make the six shapes; even a newbie can get the "C" and the "O" and the "I." The rest are different enough to be unfamiliar. "But …" I start.

"But, what?"

"You would probably make up a name for yourself, one that you didn't have to spell out every time."

"Like a baby."


He opens his mouth to speak, closes it; what is he afraid to say? Then, "What's your name?"

I sign it for him; he watches my hands flash and twitch, the name that Jade had suggested for me.

"What does it mean?"

"Well, Sky, but …" I make the first part. "That's sky." I make the second part. "That's lily." I do it again, making the two shapes flow together to make one new sign, one that describes me. He smiles.

"Lily," he repeats. "From the photograph."

"Yes." There's more to it than that, but I don't want to get too far into it.

"It's … pretty."

I smile back. "Thanks. Names are a very … personal thing. Not everybody gets to choose their name; people like me - deaf people - can." I grin. "For instance, you're stuck with 'Corbin.'"

He makes a face, grinning. "Hey! I like 'Corbin!'"

"But wouldn't you like to be known as something else, sometimes?"

He shrugs. "I don't know. I'm not deaf." He leans back, crosses his arms, looks at me through slitted eyes. "What would you call me?"

"I don't know." I sit back, as well, thinking. Then, I sign hat and beard, and explain it to him.

He smiles, looking smug. "I don't always wear a hat. And I can shave my beard off."

I think about it some more. I wonder if he knows how … intimate this process can be. Then, I sign drawing and boy.

He thinks about it. "Better," he responds. "Closer."

I think about it some more. Then, more inspiration. I think about the artwork I just saw, his artwork. I think also about the first time I saw him, that day at the track meet. I sign prairie and runner.

"Prairie runner," he responds. "Prairie runner. I like it. My two favorite things. So far."

So far …

Two weeks later and we're in his truck, a loud, red thing that he and his father restored a few years ago. I like it; I can feel the engine's power vibrating my seat. There's something very Corbin about it. We're west of the city, in Kansas, heading south, towards Wichita; the highway unwinds itself across the flattish landscape of farms and pastures. I've probably been here before, but I don't really remember. Too many people - me, included - think that Kansas is something to sleep through on your way to somewhere more interesting. I try to see it through Corbin's eyes.

He eases the truck off the highway, slows, turns right, towards the west. The road is rough and rumbly. Corbin rolls down his window and I do the same, and the smell and heat of the spring day fills the truck. There's something immediate and real about this, about the fields passing by each side of us; I stick my hand out the window, ride it up and down on the air currents, a tiny airplane wing.

I think of sky and prairie.

Those two weeks have been a rollercoaster of a cliché, of tentative outreach and pullbacks, of I'm not sure and how does this work? and maybe we should … and I understand it, all of it. I know what he's thinking, and I tell myself he's not stupid, he's figured it out and he's trying to see if he can get there. Part of me sees that he wants to, but the rest of me sees that he's afraid of what he wants, of his desires, of the strangeness of this, of me.

I confide in - of all people - Jade.

Is he what you want?

I … think so.

You think so. You don't know.

Does any of us know, at first?

She thinks about it. Did you know about me?

Some, I answer. I knew I felt something.

But now you feel something for him.

I do. I'm sorry.

A flash of anger washes across her. Don't be sorry. I understand.

It's just that it's … strange.

It was never going to be anything but that, she responds, smiling. Certainly you understand that.

I … guess. It's just that …


Well, I've … I've spent all this time and energy and …

Money, she supplies.

I grin, sheepishly. Money, yes … to be what I am. But you'd think I'd want …



She smiles again. But I already told you … that's not what you are. Now, maybe you're both things, Leah-and-Sky … but I think there's more to it than that. You're whoever and whatever you want to be. but you have to want to be it, you know?

I point to my head. It's getting kinda busy in here.

She grins. I bet it is. Don't worry so much about it.

I just wonder …


Which one of us he's interested in.

There's only one way to find out, Sky.

So, anyway … back to the prairie. And Prairie.

He turns to me, smiles. I smile back. He turns his attention back to the road unreeling in front of us. But he's not done. He turns back to me, and the measuring stare he gives me says more than anything else we've said to each other in the past week. I just wish I knew how to translate it.

He's in a wife-beater that hugs his thin and muscular frame, over faded denims and work boots. And a baseball cap, which makes me smile, thinking of earlier, when he claimed that he didn't always wear such a hat. And he still has the beard, what there is of it. Under his right arm, the one gripping the steering wheel, I glimpse a tuft of soft brown hair fanning out.

Hat beard, I sign, and he laughs. Prairie chicken, he signs back.

He turns his attention back to the road and I, curse the gods, turn my attention briefly to his midsection, down there, at the middle of him, at the suggestions and hints of male topography concealed artfully beneath the faded twill. I force myself to look away and back to the other topography at play outside. I notice that the hills surrounding us are bare of trees: we're in the Flint Hills.

Those hills are soft and green with spring and its promise; there is something feminine about them, the folds and secret places and soft, billowing shapes, and I think of Jade and that day, she on the bed, I at the window, about to tell her something that will change both of us.

A few miles later, Corbin slows the truck and pulls onto a gravel road. We're facing a metal gate from which hangs a rusted metal sign whose letters are clear enough: No Trespassing. I turn to Corbin but he's already half out of the truck, hand reaching in his pocket, producing a set of keys. He works at the lock, opens it, swings the gate away and back on itself.

He climbs back into the truck, eases it through the gate - we rumble across a grate set into the ground, one designed to keep cattle from wandering away - and stops again, to secure the gate behind us.

Once more in the truck, we proceed slowly; the gravel has been replaced by a worn and rutted dirt road that must turn into mud when it rains. I turn to Corbin.

"I take it we're not trespassing."

He smiles. "No." He waves a hand lazily around. "We own all this. My family."

"Wow. How much?"

"Uh … maybe about two hundred acres? I mean, it's not much, really, just grazing land. For cattle."

But it's something. I smile. "My boy-" I start, before I stop, realizing too late what I was about to say.

He looks at me steadily. "Go ahead."

I swallow. "My boyfriend, the land baron."

One side of his mouth twists up into a grin. "Yeah."

If I had fillings, they would have vibrated out of my teeth by this point, so rutted and bumpy is this road. I turn to Corbin.

"Pavement is a wonderful invention, you know."

He grins. "Yeah, but … can't make it too easy, right?"

We bump on; I will my stomach not to embarrass me with this morning's breakfast as an unwelcome encore. I know where he's taking us - it can be only one place - and I tell myself that the reward will be worth this small bit of torture.

He rounds a bend and stops. I look up. We're here. It's the view from his drawing. And it's beautiful, I can see that now. There is beauty here. I turn again to him.

"Corbin, it's …" I don't know what to say. I don't have to say anything.

"My father brought us here one day, when I was five or six. It's one of the earliest things I remember, this place. I don't know why we were here - I think maybe he wanted to check on the place - but I remember just being … overwhelmed by it."

We're on the edge of a bluff that slopes down and away from us; in the middle distance are the cattle he alluded to, heads bent down, picking at the scrubby grass. The hills roll like the sea on to the horizon, getting hazier and hazier until they lose themselves in the sky. There's something alien about the landscape, but something familiar about it, as well, something basic and primeval and comforting.

We scramble out of the truck, walk over to the edge of the bluff, sit side by side in the grass. The wind picks at our hair, our clothing, our skin; there is a bucolic kind of smell, of cattle, of the tall grass, of the earth. I resist the urge to make a joke of it; someday, son, all this will be yours, from Monty Python.

"I can see why you like it, Corbin."

"I … well, it's peaceful," he replies. "It's one of the few places where I can be alone."

I understand that, but "Why do you need to be alone?"

"Because of … things, I guess." He looks away, then back at me; I suspect that if he didn't have to face me every time he wanted to say something, he would be looking away from me. "Because of people like you."

My heart patters. "People like me," I repeat. But I know.

"My brothers wouldn't understand. Or my parents. Especially my parents."

"Do you need them to understand?"

He thinks about it. "No one has ever asked me that before."

"Maybe they should."

"I would like them to understand it. It would help."

I smile. "It might help if I understood it."

"I think you do. Remember what you said in the car."

"But, Corbin, I'm not -"

He reaches out, taps my mouth, shutting me up. "I know." He makes a face. "Hence the confusion."

"If it helps, I'm confused, as well. Well, not confused, but …"

"But you did it. You went ahead with it."

"It was better than not doing it." It had been an inescapable compulsion, the need to give voice - so to speak - to Sky, to will him into existence.

"How did your parents handle it?"

"My dad was good with it. My mom … not so much. They split up."

"Because of this? Stupid."

"My dad says not; he says they were having problems long before that. I was just the … catalyst, I guess."

"Would it have changed things? If you hadn't done it?"

"I … well, it wasn't a choice, not really." Not really an answer to his question; I've thought about what I've done - what I'm still doing - every day since I said yes to all of it, to him, to Sky.

"Choices," he says. He reaches out, picks up a rock, launches it into space, watches as it crashes back down in a splash of dust. He turns to me. "I want to make a choice, if that's okay."

I shrug. "Uh … okay, I guess."

"It involves you, by the way."

I smile. "Does it, now?"

He sidles closer to me, leans over, brushes his lips against mine, cradles my neck, releases me. We stare at each other, almost nose to nose.

"Okay," I say. "Still not getting the whole choice thing."

He pulls back, laughing. "Yeah, me either." But he doesn't pull back all the way, and the moment between us lengthens.

"You can -" I start, and he does, leaning in again.

When we break he shifts position. "That's all I've got, for now."

"That's enough, for now." And it is. It's perfect.

Later, we wander the property; Corbin wants to show me something, some kind of house, one that his great-grandfather built a long time ago.

We stand before it; there is nothing but stone walls remaining of it, some kind of prairie Stonehenge, dusty and mysterious. I try to imagine the lives lived here, why it was abandoned. It sits down from the crown of the hill, halfway between the top and the bottom, where a thin, silver trickle of water stutters and threads its way along a stony bed dotted with cottonwood. I have never heard the sound of water. It strikes me that it would be something I would very much enjoy hearing.

"You know, it wouldn't take much. To rebuild it," he says.

"Is that what you want to do?"

He nods. "I do. Maybe live out here, at some point."


"Quiet," he counters.

"What would you do all day?"

He smiles. "I don't know. Well, art, maybe. I'd like to do that."

"You and the cows, keeping each other company."

"Well, they have a lot to say, as it turns out. It's just that nobody ever thinks to ask them."

I smile, roll my eyes.

"Hey - I got an idea," he says. "You ever been camping?"

"Well … does a tent made from a blanket in the dining room count?"

"Depends. Did you have a campfire and everything?"

"No. Mom wouldn't let me have one, the fool. Some nonsense about arson, and insurance companies."

"Well, then you haven't been camping. Would you like to?"

I don't even have to think about it. "Yes. Absolutely."

It's late when Corbin drops me off at my place, but my father is still awake, reading, in his office … which is really nothing more than the front bedroom in our bungalow. He looks up when I step into the foyer.

Hi, he signs.


You have a good time?

I did. I'm tired, but dashing off to bed seems rude, and I sense that my father is up for a reason. Me. I step into his office.

Where did you go?

Oh, out to Kansas. The Flint Hills, a little south of Emporia.

My father makes a face. Really? What on earth for?

Corbin … well, his family has land out there. Cattle.

Did you have a good time?

I think about it. Yes, I did.

Good, good. I haven't been out to the Flint Hills for a long, long time.

It's pretty, actually. Once you get there and look around, it's nice.

Good. He smiles. So, this boy …

Corbin, I sign, spelling it out again.

Corbin. You like him?

I do. As a friend, I want to add, but he's more than that - especially after what happened, the kiss and its promise - and I think we both know that. As might my father.

Good. He like you?

He does. He's a nice guy.

Good, good, my father signs. I just … well, I want you to be happy, Sky.

I … think I am.

You two have been seeing a lot of each other.

I guess. Is … is that a problem?

What? No, no … not at all. I just … well … are you serious about him, Sky?

Am I? Nothing's really happened yet. I don't know, Dad. Maybe, but … I shrug, maybe the only answer I can safely give at this point.

I get it.

We're both trying to … figure things out, maybe. I really don't want the third degree, not right now. Mostly what I want is to go upstairs and think about today. I make a move towards the door. I should get to bed …

I know, I know … I'm sorry. I just … want you to be happy, Sky.

I know. You said that, already. I smile.

Did I? Sorry.

My father seems distracted; something else is in play here, and he's trying to work himself up to it. Is it about Corbin? Dad? Are you okay?

Yeah. I'm just … He rubs his face, pinches his eyes. I just … well, be careful, Sky. I want you to be careful.

Nothing's happened, Dad. With … Corbin.

I trust you, Sky. You know that.

Okay. Thanks. If I were a boy - really a boy - would he be saying this to me? I suppose I'll always be his little girl, his Leah, and it is different for girls, I think. Not that fathers should be telling their sons to go out and nail everything that moves, but the rules are different. Dad? Is there … something else?

He looks at me; there's something about his look, something wary and unsure. He has something to tell me and doesn't want to.

Yeah. I just … He gathers himself. Sky, I've been … talking to your mother.

I make my face go blank. Okay. His prerogative, of course. They're still married, even if she's not living here.

We, um … well, we thought … well, she thinks she might want to come home.

Home, I repeat.

Yeah. He smiles, trying to take the sting out of it. She … she wants us to be a family again.

Some bit of anger surges through me. We are a family, Dad. We haven't stopped being a family, Dad. She was the one who - I stop myself, before I say anything I can't take back.

I know, I know. Look, Sky … she made a mistake. We all made mistakes. She wants to get past all of that. She wants us to be together again.

Am I one of those mistakes that were made? I almost say it, pull back, think again.

Am I one of those mistakes that were made? Because I'll be honest here, Dad - I don't think I made a mistake. What I did do is to make a choice, one that she couldn't live with it, and she bugged out. And now she wants back in? Why?

My father listens silently to my rant. When I'm done, we look at each other; I'm slightly embarrassed by what I've said, but I don't back down.

Then, his hands move. You were never a mistake. Don't you ever forget that. Don't you ever say that, again.

I'm sorry.

No, no … you were right to say what you did. I just … well, just give her a chance, Sky. She knows what she's coming back into.

Does she? When she'd left, I was still - nominally - Leah. Now, I'm something else.

I've explained it to her. I told her that things were different.

Doesn't mean she's going to like it, I sign.

Well, no, Sky - it doesn't. But she says she'll try, and that's all that anyone can do. Even you.

I think about my mother … whether or not I want her back in my life. For some reason, my father does.

Look, Sky, he continues. I know it's not what you want to hear, but I want to try to get us all back together again. I … need you to try as well. Can you?

We'll see, I guess. It's up to her. And, with that, I leave.

Jade, when I tell her about this, is stunned.

You're kidding.

Nope. We're supposed to go out to eat in a couple of days, some fancy restaurant. Maybe Dad thinks I won't make a scene if we're out in public.

So, she just gets to waltz back in, pick things up where they left off?

I guess, I answer. It's not up to me, really. Dad wants it to happen.

Well, she is your mother, I guess …

I smile at that. Jade smiles back.

How was your big day with Corbin? Or … date, maybe.

My smile gets brighter. Good. It was good. And it wasn't really a date.

What did you do?

Went out to the Flint Hills. His family owns some land there.

She grins. And?

And that was it, I respond. Well, he did kiss me.


And that's as far as he wants to take things. It's … well, he's probably trying to figure it out.

I bet. Does he know? About … you, and …

I … think so. He saw your photograph, and he's not as dumb as he looks.

Didn't say he was.

But … well, knowing about it and seeing it are two different things.

Jade leers. Is he? Going to see it?

I blush, realizing that I had just stepped into it. I don't know.

Well, maybe you should know. What if he point blank just asks you? Says he's interested, wants to take things further. Are you ready for that?

All he did was kiss me, Jade. It wasn't … well …

But it could be. You and I both know that's true. Guys …

Something inside me makes me feel like I need to defend my adopted sex. Not all guys.

Well, no … but more than a few. He's obviously interested in you.

I guess, I respond. Jade rolls her eyes.

You guess. She looks more closely at me. I think actually that you're more afraid that he's not interested in you.

Damn you, Jade, for being right again. I nod. But which me? I ask.

What do you mean, which you? What does that even mean?

Well, you know …

Come here, Jade beckons.


So I can smack the shit out of you, idiot. How many times do I have to tell you? You're Sky, and that's it. And if he doesn't understand that by now … well, then, he is as dumb as he looks.

Well, it has to be weird, right? I mean, I look like a boy, but … well …

Let him figure it out! You say that he probably already has, and I agree. And, yeah, maybe in the end he'll just figure out that it's just not worth it. But, on the other hand, he might just think that it is worth it. I think you need to be ready, just in case.

Put out or shut up, right?

No, that's not what I'm saying. But he might want to carry things a bit further. You just need to figure out if that's what you want. If he's what you want. She grins. If hes are what you want.

I roll my eyes. Clever.


Meanwhile, my mother.

The three of us are sitting together in a booth in a nice-enough restaurant on the Plaza, eyeing each other, not sure where to start, now that this thing has happened. My mother keeps throwing glances at me, at what I've become, someone she does not yet know. She looks good - she's obviously prepared for this meeting, with makeup and styled hair and a nice dress - but nervous; she goes back repeatedly for sips of a white wine that sits at attention at her right hand. Dad is working on a beer, and he, too, is nervous.

For some reason, I am not nervous. I am … stuck in neutral, I guess. Waiting.

So … he starts. You … you look great, Beth.

She smiles. Thanks. So do you, Henry. And you, too … Sky. The name comes to her slowly, half-remembered. I smile.

I've missed you guys, she continues.

You didn't have to, I think. Dad risks a quick glance at me, then turns back to her. Well, we … don't have to do this, any more. We can stop missing each other.

I … would like that, my mother responds.

Anything else my father would say is interrupted by the appearance of the server, a youngish man - maybe a college student - neat and tidy in a crisp white shirt over black trousers, hair cut short, a slight beard dusting his strong jaw. Something about him reminds me of Corbin … perhaps his slim, lean body telegraphed under the uniform; maybe another runner?

We make quick work of the menu. Dad - feeling expansive, perhaps - goes for the steak and baked potato, the only choice for Real Men Everywhere, while Mom goes the opposite direction with a Caesar salad topped with chicken. I engage my boyish side and get the bacon double cheeseburger and fries, along with a shake. Another beer and another wine cap off the order.

When the server walks away, we go back to whatever it was we were doing before. Mom turns to me.

So … how are you doing, Leah?

I freeze; Dad opens his mouth to say something, shuts it.

Sky, I sign back.

She frowns. What? Then she understands. Oh! I'm so sorry. I … well, I forgot.

It's okay.

It's just that …

I understand. But I'm Sky, now.

Well, Sky … how are you?

Good, I answer. I'm good.


I smile, make a more-or-less motion with my hand, and she smiles back at me. Something shifts inside me; even this little bit of approbation still means something to me. Still, though, my mother seems unable to say anything other than bland generalities, and I seem unable to answer with anything but the same; is that how it's going to be from here on out? I tell myself that I have less than a year under their roof until I am able to be on my own. Wherever that may be, whatever I may be doing.

Conversation languishes as we wait for our meal; there is a great deal that we should probably be saying to each other, but maybe the restaurant and the setting aren't the best place for it. My mother plays with her wine glass, running a finger around the rim of it. My father cradles his nearly empty beer in his hands, staring off into space. Are they waiting for me to say something?

Finally, my mother looks up. So, Sky … what's new?

I almost laugh at that; the last time we were together, I was barely a month out of the hospital, after my surgery, still bandaged, still very much Leah, raw and unsure that I had made the right decision. In the interim, I've healed - no scars there, luckily - and put on twenty pounds, most of it muscle. I've also grown a couple of inches, and I have hair in the most interesting places. The greatest change in my life at this point is this:

I've met someone, I sign.

My father shoots me a look: shut up, it seems to say. Sky … he signs.

What? I respond. She asked me if anything was new in my life. Corbin is something new.

Corbin? my mother asks. A … boy?


I see. Well …

She looks confused, and I give her that; it is confusing. But it's clearer to me now than it ever has been, what I am and what I want to be.

Do you … do you like him? she continues.

I do.

My mother turns to my father. Did you know about this?

His answer seems reluctant. Well, yes, Beth … of course.

Have you met this boy?

I … have not. Not yet.

Would you like to? I ask.

My mother smiles, but it is the smile of someone who desperately wishes she was in some other conversation. Well, I'm … I don't know …

Why don't you know? I persist.

Sky, my father interrupts. Maybe this isn't the time for this.

So, what exactly are we supposed to talk about?

My father frowns. Maybe we don't have to talk about anything, Sky.

Meaning, maybe we don't have to talk about anything you don't want to talk about. Like Corbin.

Sky, Corbin's not a part of this. At least, not tonight. Maybe later.

Fine. Let me know when I can talk about it. Him.

My mother looks between the two of us. Sky, your Dad's right. We can talk about this later.

Okay. Fine. You two can talk about whatever you want to talk about. I'll just sit here.

My mother reaches out, places a hand on my forearm. Sky, please. Let's just … I just want this to be a nice night for the three of us. Don't spoil it.

Don't spoil it? How am I spoiling it?

My father jumps in. We can talk about this later, Sky. At home.

I glance at him. I just thought she'd be happy that I was seeing someone.

Well, I am, my mother signs. I am, she repeats. It's just that … well, it's a lot for someone to take in, you know. First, this … and now you've got a … a boyfriend? I just … well, maybe I don't understand it.

I think of what I told Corbin, out in the field. Why do you have to understand it? Why can't you just let it be what it is?

You don't understand, Sky. It's … well, it's hard for a mother. You need to understand that. It's hard for a mother - well, at least for me - to watch you go from one thing to something totally different.

I thump my chest. But it's still me, Mom. It's still me. It's what I always felt that I was, deep down inside. It's just that now it's … real, I guess. I wave at myself. This is what I am, now. Sky. I'm Sky.

The good thing about conducting an argument in sign language is that nobody else knows what's going on. They just see a lot of hand motions and can maybe intuit some of the emotion involved by watching our faces … but there's no screaming, no yelling, no shouting. Maybe only one in a hundred people can understand what we're saying to each other.

To my credit - maybe I'm growing up? - there's also no storming away from the table in anger. I stay in my seat. Despite that, I can see that my father's upset, and wants nothing more than to shut me up. Sky, he signs. Calm down. We can talk about this later, okay?

He and I stare at each other. Fine, I sign, then I deliberately put my hands in my lap, lace my fingers tightly together, hiding my voice away.

My mother sees this, sighs. It's just going to take me a little time, baby. Surely you can see that? I just … I need to understand this. I just think it will be easier if we can all be together, to get through this thing.

Get through what thing? I think. Me? Is that how she sees me, now? A problem, to be solved? A thing, to be endured? I nod, shrug. Sure, fine, whatever.

Whatever else we might say is interrupted by our server and another server, bringing over our orders. They busy themselves setting plates in front of us, another basket of bread, our drinks. Our server says something to my father - his back is to me so I can't make it out, probably something along the order of how does everything look? - and my father nods and smiles and says something, and then the man is gone.

I eat the rest of my meal in silence, studiously avoiding looking at my parents, who go back to trading more small talk with each other, not signing.

Corbin and I are looking at each other across the tiny granite-topped table at the coffee shop where we first talked … which has somehow become our place, even though it's not all that easy to get to from either of our houses. But, I tell myself, it's off the beaten path for most of the people we know, which might make it a good place for both of us to be at this stage.

"So, about that camping trip …" he starts.

I smile. "Yes?"

"You still want to go?"

"Of course," I respond. "Absolutely."

He grins. "Says the guy who's never been camping before."

"First time for everything, right? I mean, what's the worst that could happen?"

"Oh, I don't know …" he starts. "Thunderstorms, tornadoes, dust storms, floods … coyotes … mountain lions …"

"Mountain lions," I repeat. "On a prairie. Seriously? Let me explain to you what an oxymoron is … you ox, you moron."

"Well, you never know …" He grins. "And I know what an oxymoron is."

"I think the worst thing that could happen is that we get mowed over by an out-of-control cow," I offer.

"It's been known to happen."

"Seriously, Corbin - I want to go."


I stare at him. "Do you want to go?"

And I think he gets it. I watch carefully as his face and body go very still as he understands the full import of what I'm suggesting. He reaches out, takes my hand … and I let him, I let him take it. Damn what anyone thinks. "Yes," he says. "I do. Very much."

My parents, however, are not as keen on the idea.

Camping trip? my father signs. Really?

Why not? Is it so weird for two friends to go camping? I open the trap very carefully.

Well, no … my father starts. Then, We don't even know this boy. Corbin.

I asked you at the restaurant if you wanted to meet him. You didn't answer. In fact, you pretty much told me to shut up.

We had other things to talk about, Sky, my mother volunteers.

Well, we can talk about Corbin now, if you want. If it's a good time, I add, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my expression.

Well, we would like to meet him. I think we have the right to ask.

The funny thing is that they've known Jade like, forever, since we were kids … and if they suspect what Jade is, they've never let on, even though she and I have done more things with each other than Corbin and I have - yet - done. But now that I've become Schuyler, everything has changed in their minds; all of a sudden I'm this strange chimera who looks like the son they never had but is still - somewhere deep down inside - their daughter. They've never asked to meet any of my other friends - not that there are all that many - but Corbin, for some reason, they want to meet. That reason being the one that we're all dancing around, 800-pound-gorilla-ing: that I might actually want to sleep with Corbin at some point during this adventure.

My mother tries a flanking maneuver. Sky, you've never been camping before. Making it sound like I'd just casually announced a hiking trip to - oh, I don't know - Siberia or Mars or someplace like that.

Put up a tent, build a campfire, cook some food, go to sleep … get up, cook some more food, take down the tent, come home. Sounds easy enough to me. Corbin's done it a lot, he says. I'm dot-dot-dotting the part I'm leaving out, the part that I don't dare say but which we all understand: maybe have sex with Corbin. Dot, dot, dot.

My father and mother look at each other. Short of just flat out saying no, there's no real reason for them to forbid me from doing this. My mother looks back at me. Still, though … we'd like to meet Corbin.

Okay, I sign. Then I pull out my phone, start pecking away. My mother taps my arm, and I look up.

What are you doing? she asks.

I give her my best wide-eyed, what do you mean, what am I doing? stare. Calling Corbin, of course.

I - oh … she signs, thinking that having to call him would mean some kind of delay, that he won't pick up, that he'd have to re-arrange schedules, shift things around, et cetera and so forth. And he just might; I don't know where he is now or what he's doing, but -

My phone buzzes, and I glance down at it, smile.

My parents want to meet you, I type.

What? Oh, boy …

Yeah, I know. You free for supper?

Uh, sure, yeah. Tonight?

Well, yeah.

[sound of mountain lion attacking] Sorry - gotta go.

Ha. Sixish? Make yourself pretty.

[second m.l. joins the hunt] Might be … difficult … ow … oh, shit …

I laugh, look back up. He'll be here at six, I sign, then I smile brightly. What's for supper?

So, here we are, the four of us, gathered around our dining room table, a thing we hardly ever use. Corbin has gone as all out as he can for the occasion: he is sans hat, but the beard is still there, although he's neatened it up a bit. He's dressed in clothes I've never seen him in, going-to-church kind of clothes, meet-your-boyfriend's-parents kind of clothes, so that he doesn't look like Every Mother's Worst Nightmare.

In fact, he looks good, which seems to reassure my parents; things actually seem to be going fairly well … as awkward as these things always must be, but nobody's shouting yet, nobody's gotten to no, yet.

Dinner is simple, but passable: salad, spaghetti and meat sauce, Italian bread, quick and easy; the remains of it litter the table as we all figure out the next step in this process. Another glass of wine sits at attention next to my mother, another beer keeps my father company.

So, this camping trip, my father signs. Corbin looks at me. I look at my dad.

You have to say it, too, for Corbin.

Oh, right. "Oh, right," he says. "Sorry."

Most of it goes … well, not badly. Corbin, to his credit, is polite and affable and easygoing; I can't tell, but I'm sure he's turned on a bit of his good ol' boy charm: nothing to see here, folks, just two guys who want to get away for a bit, get back to nature, shoot the shit under the stars, like guys everywhere, like maybe you also did, Mr. Turner?

To which my dad answers, "Yes. I did."

My mother, though, sits there, saying little, the look on her face getting grimmer and grimmer as the minutes tick by. Corbin, I know, must see this, as well. Finally, she can't take any more.

"Corbin," she says, not signing … rude, but, okay, I can read lips. "I … I don't know. I … well …" She breaks off, but I know where she's going with it. And she lobs what she thinks is a grenade into the conversation. "I … well, you do know about Leah, right?"

Corbin looks down, then back up at her. "Yes, ma'am. I do."

I can't believe she's doing this, but I do believe it. I have to. Mom, I sign. Mom. But she won't look at me.

"Well, then, you understand my concerns."

"Ah … no, ma'am … I'm not sure that I do." His face is politely neutral, expectant, waiting for her to state - to commit herself - to what we all know she's thinking.

"Well, Corbin … if … Sky … were a real boy, I wouldn't be worried, but -"

"Beth …" my father says. She ignores him.

"But Sky's not like other boys, is he? She's - well, he's … I mean …" She smiles, shrugs her shoulders, makes an I can't help it kind of face, still hoping he'll fill in the blanks. He waits, the picture of politeness, youth waiting for the adults to explain themselves to him. "I mean … you know …"

"Sky is Sky, Mrs. Turner," he volunteers. Jade would be proud of him, I think.

"Well, yes, of course, but … I don't know, any more, what to think." She laughs. "I mean, boy? Girl? Both? Neither? I don't know what to think, any more," she repeats. "I mean, I look at him sitting over there, and he looks like a boy, but I know and you know that he's not. Well, not where it counts, you understand? He's … well, he's still a little bit Leah, and I'm just not sure that I'm ready for him … her … to …"

I stand up. I'm tired of filling in her blanks, her statements that trail off into nothingness.

Corbin's right, Mom. I'm Sky. That's what I am. That's what I'm going to be from here on out. Not Leah, not Leah-and-Sky, but … Sky. I know what I am to you, or what I was … but that's not who I am now, and I want you to understand that, if you can. I think we all know what you're trying to say. You think that Corbin and I are going to go off with each other and … well … be with each other.

Well? Are you? she asks.

I don't know. Maybe, maybe not. I don't know. All I do know is that I like Corbin a lot and he seems to like me. He likes Sky. He wants to be with Sky. And if all that we do this weekend is go camp out under the stars and cook hot dogs and talk to each other until two in the morning, that's fine. He's a friend, Mom. More than anything else, he's a friend.

Oh, honey, I know, but …

You know what I think, Mom? I think you don't trust me.

Oh, honey, it's not that, it's … She starts crying. I risk a glance at Corbin; he looks on the verge of running, of getting the hell out of here, and I wouldn't blame him if I did. I want to get the hell out of here.

My father turns to my mother. "Beth. Beth, look at me."


"He's right. Sky's right." Which just makes her cry harder, flicking away the tears that roll down her cheeks, but my father persists. "I understand how you feel, because I felt the same way, and I was here the whole time, watching it, watching my daughter become something - someone - else. And, yes - it was hard. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to witness. Every day, every week, I watched my daughter make this choice. And, sure, maybe actually being a part of it helped. I could take it in stages, in little steps. You … well, you weren't here for a lot of it. It must have been a shock for you see Sky at the restaurant."

Dad, I sign. I never meant to hurt you.

I know you didn't, he answers, smiling. You never have, he adds. He turns back to my mother, addresses her. "It's hard. I get that. But once I understood what was going on inside Leah - what was really going on - it got easier. I understood that Sky couldn't stay locked up inside forever; no parent wants his child to be miserable. When I understood that this was what Leah needed, I - well, I just let myself accept it. And I'm glad I did. There's no use fighting it, Beth. This is what it is now. I hope you can accept it. Him. Sky." He turns to me, smiles. "The one thing I know most of all is that I love our child, no matter what. For me … well, for me, not to accept him is not to love him."

I turn to Corbin, start explaining the parts he's missed. Then, my mother stands up, turns to me.

Leah, she signs. Sky, I sign back shaking my head. She shakes her head in response. No, I'm sorry. You'll always be Leah, to me, even when you look like … that. She waves a hand at me; I presume she means what I'm wearing, how I look, the broad shoulders and chest, narrow hips, patchy beard on my jaw and chin, short haircut.

Beth … my father warns, again. Angrily, she shakes her head.

No! Leah! When I first found out that I was having a girl, I … well, I was ecstatic. Over the moon. The one thing I wanted most in this life was what I had just been given. You. My Leah. I didn't want anything else but you. And … you were perfect, you were lovely. My little angel.

Mom …

Again, she shakes her head. No. I have to get this out. I … you were so good, back then. So wonderful, so perfect. There's something between a mother and her daughter, regardless of what people say.

I'm close to crying, too - damn her. I tried, Mom. I tried as hard as I could. But … you don't know what it was like, to know what was going on inside me and to not be able to tell you. I wanted to, I wanted to so badly, but I didn't know how! I didn't know how to say it. I thought I was going crazy. I really did. I knew that it would hurt you. And it has. It still is.

But, we could have done something, baby! she answers. We could have! We could have taken you to doctors, had you checked out, hormones, maybe -

We did that, Mom. Remember? And what they told me - told us - was that I was something … different. Not just Leah. Someone else … a boy, even though I looked like a girl.

You are a girl! she answers. You are! You say you're not, but I know!

It's not that simple, I answer. I wish it were, but it's not.

We fall silent, stare at each other for a long moment. Then, her face falls, all life leaving it, her eyes dull and listless, her mouth lax. She grips the back of her chair, looks down at the ground … and I can see them, like diamonds, like crystal: fat tears falling from her eyes. She looks up at me; her hands move and dance with her grief.

Well, I guess it's just too much for me to understand, I guess. I know that's what you all want out of me. That I understand it. That I accept it. That I just forget that I ever had a daughter and a life with her, a life that I loved more than anything. That we can just all pick back up where we left off, except for this one little mistake, this -

Mistake? I ask. Really?

Beth, my father signs. You should just stop talking right now. I think you've said enough.

Well, maybe I have, she responds. And then she leaves. From our seats, we are witness to the Grand Guignol of this, her leaving, fumbling in the glass bowl by the back door for her car keys, grabbing her purse, going out. Although I myself cannot hear it, I intuit the rest: the rumble of the garage door opening, the sounds of a car starting up and backing out of the garage, the echoing rumble of the door shutting. And then, silence.

After she's gone, the three of us look at each other, our expressions slightly shell-shocked. Corbin gathers himself first, not knowing who to look at, perhaps more than slightly embarrassed at having to witness our family falling apart.

"Maybe I should …" He waves vaguely at the front door. Leave, he means.

"No," my father responds. "You don't have to." He smiles at Corbin. "I want you to stay. I think Sky does, too."

"I hate this," I speak. "I'm sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry. It's not your fault."

Do you think she'll come back? I sign.

I don't know, my father answers, after a long pause. I … hope so. But even in the dance of his hands there is the unstated realization: I don't think so.

I … don't know what to do, Dad. What should I do?

He looks at me, smiles. Oh, that's easy, Sky. I think you've known that all along. You should go with Corbin.

I'm stunned. Are you sure?

It's just about the only thing I'm absolutely certain of, at this point. I trust you, Sky. I trust you to make whatever decision you need to make.

And now we're back in Corbin's truck, rushing down the interstate, towards the Flint Hills, towards his family's property. The back of the truck is full of the impedimenta necessary for modern camping, a largish pile of things hidden under a paint-spattered tarp.

It's quiet inside the cab; well, it's always that way for me … but Corbin and I aren't saying anything to each other. It's difficult, I know; he has to face me in order for me to understand what he's saying, and that takes his eyes off the road for far longer than is proper. It would be easier if he could sign; that's something we're working on, but it's going to take a while.

I don't think he's angry, but I don't know quite where to put his emotions, at this point. He's pleasant enough, but there's some kind of quiet understory of brooding and contemplation in his expression. Of course, that might be partially due to the other understory of emotions at work, here: the very real possibility that we might take things further. A lot further. I don't know where he stands on the spectrum of such things - is he a virgin? - but I know exactly where I stand. I suppose the things that Jade and I did with each other count towards that determination, but this is different.

Am I ready for that? Well, really - is anyone ever ready for that? You can convince yourself - or have others convince you - to wait, wait, wait, to save yourself … and then it's too late, and you never do anything, or you do the wrong thing. As Jade told me, there's only one way to find out. Part of me, of course, wonders why the drive to do this is so strong; is it the tea? Is it something else? Just teen-aged hormones? Am I trying to prove something to myself?

I want to make Corbin stop the truck, pull off the interstate and onto the shoulder, so that we can have a proper conversation, face to face. I feel like I'm in some intermediate, indeterminate world, caught between darkness and light, in some kind of grey pre-dawn twilight; I can see the shapes of things, but I cannot tell their true colors.

And, then, I get my answer, all the answer I need right now. Corbin reaches out, grabs my left hand, squeezes it, lifts it to his lips, kisses it, and the world wobbles on its axis underneath me, and I smile.

We work quietly, in the golden light of the setting sun. Late afternoon is glorious around us under a faultless cerulean sky and the dusty green of prairie grass blanketing the hills. The tent is nearly finished; it is a strange, modern thing, an igloo of waterproof nylon and netting and curved ribs of some plastic, all of it alien to me, something I've never done, something my family never much seemed interested in.

When that's done, Corbin produces a smallish box, pulls out a carefully-folded square of gray plastic, unfurls it into an oblong shape, hooks up a small air compressor, starts it up. It's an air mattress; a bed, the bed, our bed. We look at each other over its gradual unfolding, all too conscious of its promise.

Corbin jinks his head to the side: come with me, and I do. We go back outside into the fading day and over to a ring of metal Corbin has placed on a bare patch of ground. A plastic-wrapped cord of firewood rests next to it; he produces a knife from his pocket and cuts the plastic away, arranges the wood in a kind of pyramid shape inside the metal ring, sets more twigs gathered from around us inside, produces a butane torch, starts playing at the twigs until they catch.

"I'm not helping much," I say.

He grins. "You don't have to." He thumps his chest, adopts a Neanderthal kind of grimace. "Me man, me make big hot thing," to which I smile and roll my eyes.

The day yields to a spectacular sunset; from our vantage point near the top of the hill and facing west we watch as the lowering sun plays over a scrim of high, thin clouds, setting them on fire in a blaze of amber, ochre and orange.

The hot dogs on skewers and yard beer that I had expected - and which would have been just fine - have been supplanted by a most surprising substitute; steaks sizzle on a grille suspended over our campfire, potatoes wrapped in tin foil are just below, nestled in the embers. We are working on a bottle of crisp white wine - I know people who know people, Corbin had said, grinning, as he worked at it awkwardly with a corkscrew - and I am pleasantly tipsy but not drunk.

This is, perhaps, the best day of my life.

For all of my life, I have known only silence, but I think that - were I able to hear - there would still be this silence between me and Corbin; he strikes me as someone who does not fear silence, who - perhaps - welcomes it, lets it say the things that words cannot say. But, I am pleasantly tipsy enough to dare to ask something that has worked at my brain for as long as I've known him. "That day, at the track meet," I start. "When we first saw each other …"

He turns. "Yes?"

"I wanted to … well …" I make a face. "This may sound strange. Or rude. Or both. I'm not sure."

He straightens, smiles. "Okay …" He cocks his head, as if hearing a strange sound, suddenly frowns. "Hmm … mountain lions, again."

I grin, shake my head. "Random cow."

"Anyway …"

"When you saw me, what did you think? Did you think I was a … boy?"

He says nothing for a moment. Then, "I did."

"And that would have been … okay, with you?"

Another moment stretches. Then, "Yes. It would have been okay."

"Corbin …?"

He looks steadily at me, his soft, wry smile snaking up the corner of his mouth. "Sky …?"

"Corbin …" I persist.

He looks down, gathering his thoughts, looks back up. "When I was … oh, I don't know, thirteen or fourteen, a cousin from Texas came up to spend the summer with us. His parents were going through a rough stretch and they thought it would be better if he weren't around for all of the shit that was about to go down between them. We knew each other, of course, but we weren't all that close, we hadn't seen each other since some Christmas when I was nine or ten and my parents took us all down to Dallas for the holidays. Trent, his name was Trent. He was a year or so older than me."

Corbin breaks off; I know there's more to this story - I even think I know where it's going - but I wait.

"And he was … I don't know … everything I wasn't, maybe." Corbin grins, suddenly. "Hard to believe, I know - but the devilishly handsome and articulate man you see before you was once a geeky teen-aged boy with some pretty weird stuff going on up here" - he points to his head - "and I think Trent could sense that."

I grin. "Hard to believe," I echo. Corbin chuckles, punches me lightly on the arm.

"Anyway, he … well … I mean, you know … teen-aged boys …"

"Well …" I counter.

"Oh, right … well, it seems that all we ever think about is sex. And we did, Trent and I. One night, he … uh, he … well, we … took care of each other, I guess. And I don't know what it meant for him, but for me …"

Corbin's blushing furiously, although I can't imagine why … but it must have been big news to a boy of fourteen, to realize that he liked this but not that. Corbin doesn't elaborate on the this and the that, and I don't need for him to.

"So …" he continues. "That's when I started to figure it out. That I wasn't like other boys."

"And here we are today."

He smiles his lopsided smile. "And here we are today."

"Whatever happened to Trent?"

"Went home, at the end of summer. Parents ended up splitting up, anyway. He graduated high school, didn't know what to do with himself, joined the Marines. I think he's over in Afghanistan, right now."

"Did you ever see him again?"

Corbin shakes his head.

The food is wonderful; the steak is tender and juicy and doesn't need anything on it but salt and pepper. The potatoes are perfect; Corbin has butter and sour cream squirreled away in the cooler. After we finish eating, we share the last of the wine by the fire. With the sun set, the evening cools down and I put on a windbreaker over my t-shirt.

Corbin banks the fire; it glows like foxfire, a little bit of the sun at our feet.

"Thank you," I say to him.

He turns, smiling. "For what?"

I wave a hand around. "For this. For everything. For … for being my friend."

"Friend …"

"Well …"

He shifts himself over next to me, leans in. "Last time we were here, I think I did this." He kisses me, deeply. I cradle his head in my hand, while his goes to my jaw, works through the sparse hairs of my beard.

Presently, we break apart.

"Yes," I answer. "I remember that."

"I was hoping you would." He stands, extends a hand to me, to help me up, and I know what he wants because it is what I want, right now, more than anything in the world.

In the tent, he goes to sit on the bed, facing me. There is light from the campfire, still, and - over our heads, coming through a mesh screen - the light of a full moon, silvering everything. It is barely enough light to see, but it's enough for this. I stand in front of him, my nerves singing … but I am not afraid.

What are you? his expression says. Show me.

Words won't do for this, I know. I kick off shoes and socks, work at buttons and my shirt joins the pile. I stand there for a long moment, looking down at myself, then at him, watching him watching me. I am now perhaps what he expects to see, a boy, slim and well-muscled, flat belly ridged and sculpted, a thing I have long dreamt of and which I fight for every day. No softness here; all is hard and firm and taut and male. I watch his nostrils flare in rhythm with his breathing.

I unzip and unbutton and my jeans puddle down at my ankles and I step out of them. Corbin shifts on the bed, his eyes glittering in the half-light as he takes me in. Everything is still as he expects, but he has no idea. There is something there, between my legs, the expected coyly hummocked treasure … but it's artifice, it's all artifice.

Corbin's hand goes to his middle and he shamelessly reaches under his waistband to shift things around, things that have made their intentions clear.

I take a deep breath, hook my fingers into the waistband of my shorts, ruck them down and off of me, and straighten back up.

I am new to this, I think. I take this flesh and I force it into new places, new countries. This is not how I began, I want to tell you. But it is how I'll end. Please forgive me, I want to say to you. I know I am not what you think you want, but I want it to be.

I can almost hear the hiccup in his breathing, watch his eyes flare wide as what he half-expects to see is not there; its opposite, perhaps, something he never expected to see - but perhaps suspected - because there is, in a sense, nothing to see.

His lips purse; I imagine an expelled, nervous, startled breath as he sees me now, fully. I have, still and yet, shocked him

What will he do, now? Recoil? Curse me? Leave? Anything and everything is possible and I will understand it. I have confused him. I have confounded him. I watch the emotions flicker across his wonderful face, watch a boy trying to become the man he thinks he should be.

He sits up, swings his legs over and I expect him to go. Instead, a hand flickers. Come here. I go to him, stop in front of him. I watch him as he reaches out a hand, traces the swelling of my chest and my flat belly. He reaches down between my legs, cups me frankly, without shame, and I settle myself into his pliant, possessive hand.

I wonder what he knows of women, how they are built, how what I have is different even from that, a little bit of my dreamt-for manhood peeping out from beneath and between the manifold pleats of what I came from. Under his hand it grows, fills out, asserts itself as it is able, a tiny version of what he himself has tucked away in his shorts.

He releases me, bends forward and down towards me and opens his mouth, flicks out his tongue. I reach out, stop him.

"No," I say. "I want to see you." I have earned that right.

He smiles slowly, one side of his sweet mouth curving up. He stands up from the bed, stands before me, begins undressing, echoing my actions, until he stands naked before me. I marvel how much like each other we are, how much alike our bodies are … but there is that, there between his legs, thick and hard, twitching in rhythm with his beating heart. As he did me, so do I to him, reaching out, trailing a finger along the length of it, feeling the veined, velvety flesh over the steel core of it. At its tip, under its hood of flesh, there is a dewdrop of moisture and I tease at it, bringing a shudder up out of him. With my other hand, I cradle his scrotum, the soft pouch of flesh containing his seed and his promise.

Leah never wanted this. Schuyler, somehow, does, and he cannot take his eyes from it, from its outrageousness, its boldness, its obvious intent. I want him inside me.

He sits, again, on the bed, pulls me to him, and that which I denied him earlier I give freely to him, now, watching as his head bends forward to me, to my middle, watching as his tongue darts out, flickers over and through and into, and I am lost.

And later, in the silvered night, astride him, I reach behind myself, grasp him, guide him up into me, sink down upon him in a fluid, easy motion until he is contained inside me. I watch his face as I work at him, at the rapture of it sheeting across his face like waves of rain and wind across the prairie. I come to rest when there is no more to take, delighting in this, in the fullness, in the marvel of it, the miracle of it. When I know that I am ready, I flex my hips and flex them again, and again.

Later, much later, something - namely, the need to relieve myself - awakens me. I sit up in bed, reach for my phone. It's not quite five in the morning. I sigh and quietly ease myself up and off the air mattress, which has deflated to an alarmingly low level. Next to me, a naked Corbin, asleep on his belly on top of the sheets, mumbles something in his sleep. He is beautiful.

Naked, I slip outside and into the early morning. It's still dark, of course; a smattering of lights can be seen here and there, but to the east there is the barest hint of the onrushing dawn, brassy green-gold replacing the indigo blue. Overhead, the sky is clear and spangled with stars; there is a coolness to the light breeze, bringing up goosebumps on my bare flesh, and I hug myself against the chill.

Corbin warned me about this; there are no facilities here. I shuffle off to a relatively private part of the site - remembering almost too late to grab the roll of toilet paper - and slip behind a tree, crouch down, do my business, something primeval about it, something daring and bold. Boys do this, I tell myself, without shame, with a certain amount of pride, fingering themselves up and out of their trousers and hosing down as much of the surrounding undergrowth as possible. I, of course, squat, as I must. There is something humbling about this, about having to submit to the body's mindless workings. There is that, I realize, in sex as well … the unstoppable urges, the needs, the desires, the wants.

Finished, I dry myself, stand up, walk back towards the tent, carrying the roll of toilet paper and my scrap of used tissue. That, I stuff into a trash bag. I think to go back to the tent and the mattress and Corbin, but the ruins of the house, rearing up in front of me, beckon. I walk over to it, go through an opening in the yellow limestone walls, go over to another wall, whose surface is beginning to pick up a bit of the morning in its rough surface. I rest myself against it; some of its heat from the day before is still there, warming me.

There are flickers of motion in the bushes and trees around me: the birds, readying themselves for the new day. Their sounds, their chitterings and chirpings and chatterings, are also sounds I've never heard before and now very much want to. I might trade everything, I think, for one day's indulgence, mute witness to the world of the hearing.

I look up at the stars, whose hard, cold light is no match for the sun. Thin, high clouds move lazily across the sky. I look up into the night sky, into animals and crowns and twins, into strange and marvelous devices.

I look down at my naked self, at what I have done to this body. I have etched a hard and hard-won masculinity onto myself, have overwritten what I was with what I need to be. I possess the body I have dreamt of since I first began to understand what I wanted, the swell of chest and shoulder and arm, the flat, hard belly, the hair, the sinew, the muscle, all of it … save for that one thing at the center of me, there between my legs. I run a hand down the length of my body and stop there, cupping myself as Corbin had cupped me with his questing hand. I run a finger along the furrow of my stubborn woman-ness, slip it inside, remembering what we had done, he and I, just hours before, remembering how he had taken me - how I had allowed myself to be taken, had allowed him inside me - and how I had surrounded him, flesh against flesh, timeless and permanent.

And now, finally, it feels right. Whatever I am, whatever I have done, is true and forever. I bare myself before the rising sun, feeling its warmth flow into me, seeing its light flow over me, revealing everything, hiding nothing.

I raise my hands to the sky, unwilling priest and priestess to unnameable forces.

Sky, I sign to the sky. Lily. Prairie. Runner.

I think to go to him now, but then there is a motion and a shadow against the ground and then here he is, as naked as I, Adam to my improper and perplexing Eve, rough and hard and beautiful and golden in the morning, and smiling, and radiant, and he comes to me and takes me in his arms and if I cannot have what I most want, then this and he are most wonderful substitutes for that, ones I gladly take for my own.


This story is part of the 2019 story challenge "Inspired by a Picture: Light and Shade". The other stories may be found at the challenge home page. Please read them, too. The voting period of 8 March to 29 March 2019 is when the voting is open. This story may be rated, below, against a set of criteria, and may be rated against other stories on the challenge home page.

The challenge was to write a story inspired by this picture:

2019 Inspired by a Picture Challenge - Light and Shade


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