Mermaid UK: http://www.mermaidsuk.org.uk
The Trevor Project: http://www.thetrevorproject.org/
by Daniel José Older
One of my favorite moments ever was when the boy called me an Arab and you said, “She’s Sikh, fucknut” and then when he said “Oh, like hide and go-“ you broke his nose. I heard music playing, I swear to God, and it was victory music, your music: A dusty, unflinching beat, lowdown and grinding. It didn’t matter that my family’s not even technically Sikh anymore since my parents went born-again and I’m just whatever. I smiled for days after that moment, Krys. Days.
But so much has happened since then, so much gone wrong.
After that day I found you on the hill at the edge of campus. There’s a fence that cuts right through the summit of the hill and the other side is all wilderness and you and MagD would sit against that fence and watch everybody and murmur quietly. Used to want to hang with you guys so bad before you stood up for me and I finally got the guts to walk up there and just say Hey. And then it was us three, and MagD used to hate it when we called her that but she probably loved it too, and wherever she is now she probably introduces herself that way, with that big toothy grin on her that looks perfect and so out of place on her serious face.
Anyway, now you’re dead.
Is what they told me. That you died. I’m not trying to rub it in: I need to say it again and again so it feels true finally, because it’s been months and I still don’t believe it. In part because you were SO alive, so flesh and blood, and the thought of you not is just…it doesn’t fit. But mostly I don’t believe it because I still feel you, my friend, all around me. And anyway, that’s what I’m getting at, I wanted to tell you that you’ve saved my life at least twice. And once was after you died.
It’s been two days and seventeen hours since I told my parents that I’m not a girl. I’m in Boston, on the bridge outside of Harvard Square actually, so right on the borderline between Boston and Cambridge. I’m alone and it’s gray gray and cold, “cold as all the fucks” like you used to say, and my bones were clacking against each other with the frostiness. I’m still 9 feet tall practically and only like 100 lbs so you can imagine, when the wind picks up I’m just like a big stupid piece of Sikh spaghetti. Or ex-Sikh spaghetti. Whatever, I exaggerate but yeah, the music was not victory music, it was a dirge. Probably in one of the modes, mixolydian or something, the rearranged howl of a lonely monk, sprinkled across the piano keys while morose string instruments drone behind it and an occasional deep ol’ bass drum booms. That was the music and there was no stopping it, because it was raining as if to piss me off more. Just drizzling, but still: I look up at the sky and say “Seriously?” It’s strange to hear the sound of my own voice after so much not speaking. The sky doesn’t answer back, it just keeps raining.
Sixty-five hours earlier and 300 miles away, my dad sent the twins to bed with a growl and then said to me, “What do you mean you’re not a girl?” He really meant it genuinely that first time, like he was really surprised. And I was like, “I mean what I said: I’m not a girl.”
My mom just frowned at me.
“But what do you mean?” Papa said as if emphasizing a different word would somehow get him a different answer, an answer that made sense.
I mean – I started to say, but he cut me off: “I mean, what do you mean?”
“Your name is Wendy.”
As if that settled it.
I told him I knew what my name was, but my name didn’t make me a girl.
“But you are a girl!” Papa exclaimed, almost laughing now with exasperation.
“I’m not.” Think it made it worse that I said it calmly, you know? Made Papa feel like he had to up his explosiveness to bring some sense of urgency to the conversation. Mom let out a sob and we both looked at her for a second. I held back the urge to apologize.
“Are you trying to say,” a haughty laugh now from Papa, “that you are a boy, Wendy?”
His palms slapped against his bald head so hard I almost laughed. “Gah!”
“Papa, I’m… look, I don’t mean to confuse you. If you’d let me explain… ”
“Explain what!” An eruption, not a question. “What’s to explain! You say you’re not a girl. You have breasts, sort of… ”
“Mohan!” My mom gasped. She never uses his first name, so you know she was upset. He shot her a look, one of his sharp ones and she went back to sobbing without so much as a glance at me.
Anyway, if you’ve never had your dad make a rude remark about how small your breasts are, Krys, you’re missing out on some true fun, lemme tell you. I didn’t answer; really I was doing everything in my power not to curse him out right then and there. Maybe you wanna know why? You were always the queen of holy curse outs, it’s one of the things I love… loved about you. No. I still love that about you. You being gone doesn’t make the love past tense. I didn’t curse him out because I wanted to do this right, even if no one else was. And because I’m seventeen and have no job and no money and I thought maybe, maybe if I do this right we could have a sensible conversation after everyone gets the bullshit off their chests and then we can work something out, not be such monsters to each other. And then maybe I could still be his daughter/son/whatever when it’s all over.
Obviously that’s not how things went because here I am. I suppressed the curseout, didn’t say anything in fact. I closed my eyes for a sec and the music was sharp and jabby, horror movie music, dissonant and vast and full of clustery notes ambushing each other, sitting too close together and attacking, falling back and attacking and I opened my eyes and my dad was damn near foaming at the mouth.
“You have a…you have a…” Mom put her hand on his and he just looked away, rubbing what might’ve been tears from his eyes.
“Can I just explain?” I said when his breathing slowed back down.
But he shook his head. “No,” he said. “You can go.”
And I did.
On the Chinatown Bus I didn’t cry but I did think about how you reacted when I told you. You just listened. It was before you were sick – before you knew you were sick – and I remember your face in the sunlight, the sunlight having its way with your perfect brown skin and you had your Mohawk and little beads of sweat were sliding down your scalp because it was a perfect summer day and you just listened. I waited ‘til MagD had left, because I love her but she doesn’t have the capacity to hold other people’s shit like you do, she’s not there. And I said everything, everything that was in me that had never come out except on pieces of paper that got shredded and burnt to ashes immediately after the words were down.
You nodded when I was done. That nod was the only moment in the whole time that made me want to break down and cry but I didn’t. I didn’t. There was silence then between us and the music was a beat and a bassline and steady synthesizers. Your theme music – it was cool like you, sweet and easy breezy.
After you nodded and we both thought for a while and the music trailed off and then started up again and people on the lawn below us mingled and fussed and then finally you said: “So you’re both and neither.”
Not a question; an agreement.
That was the first time you saved my life.
Now, here on this bridge over the Charles, dark thoughts overtake me, but I don’t cry. I drift to sleep, and when I wake I know something foul is coming: The night is serene but the music is sinister, creeping, uncouth. I wait for it. Doze again and when I wake there’s a boy sitting next to me. I don’t know how he got there; even though I was nodding I’m sure he didn’t just walk up. I’m a light sleeper and I’m terrified – a passing rat woke me earlier. This boy is almost as tall as me. He’s pale pallid pale and his straight light brown hair hangs down half-mooning his face. He’s looking at me, not smiling. It’s not threatening, his presence, but when I close my eyes real quick to check? There’s no music. None.
We just stare at each other for a few solid seconds, and it’s pleasant in that we don’t have to speak. There’s no stupid small talk to fill in the gaps. The silence is our friend. But then the boy vanishes. He’s just gone. I hold my breath, thinking maybe I’m dreaming but I know I’m not. I wait, breath still held. When he reappears he’s in the same spot, same position, staring at me.
And still no music.
“Are you a ghost?” I say.
His mouth only tilts upwards at the far edge, a hint of a smile, smug yet somehow defeated. I break his glare and look back at the river. He keeps looking at me.
“My name is Niles.”
“That’s supposed to mean something to me?”
“No. It’s just my name.” He reaches a pale hand towards me and I flinch a little before I realize he means for me to shake it. “You don’t have to,” he says, frowning.
“It’s fine.” I take his hand in mine and it’s really there.
“You can call me Wes.”
“That your name?”
“It’s what you can call me.”
He doesn’t ask if I’m a boy or a girl, doesn’t probe ‘bout why I’m on the streets, doesn’t want to know where I’m from. It’s refreshing. So I ask the questions.
“Why did you just disappear?”
He shrugs. “’Cuz I can. It’s what I do.” A moment passes, then he turns to me and smiles with his whole mouth, shows his teeth even and if he wasn’t such a wisp of a boy it might be threatening. But maybe in a cute way, if I was into that kind of thing. “You can do it too. Wanna learn?”
I do want to disappear. It’s all I’ve wanted to do since…since forever maybe. Just not be: unravel myself from everyone else’s consciousness and be gone. But without dying. Sounds delicious. And Niles Finney can do it whenever he wants. It hardly seems fair.
“I guess,” I say.
“Oh, it’s cool. I don’t have to teach you. I’m not even sure if you could anyway, not everyone can do it. It’s pretty hard. Which is cool cuz otherwise any idiot could do it and then it’d be no fun.”
“I said ‘Yes!” Comes out shriller than I’d meant it too, but what are you gonna do?
“No, you said you guessed.”
“I know, fine, but I meant yes. I just…I’ve never seen anyone disappear before.”
“Exactly!” Then, as if to prove his point, Niles is gone again and it’s only the night sky where he’d been before and the scattered lights of Cambridge crowding the edge of the Charles.
“Come back,” I say quietly.
He’s smiling broadly when he reappears. “I never left.”
“Alright, hot shot, what’s the big secret?”
Niles inches closer to me and I realize he has no smell. “You’re already most of the way there.”
“Yes. That’s why I sat beside you.” His voice has an antiquated lilt to it. Almost sounds British but no – it’s paperthin though, and crisp. “Because I saw it in you.”
“Saw what?” Am I flattered? I am. Something special inside of me, someone who sees it. Yes.
“It.” A whisper. “It’s like an emptiness. A nothing. But it’s beautiful. It carries you; it’s a power. They tell you it’s weakness but it’s strength. It’s how I do what I do.”
I just stare at him for a minute. It’s a minute that hangs in the balance. He may be batshit. But then, I’m the one seeing disappearing boys. I may be batshit. Something about what he says is true though. It’s unavoidable. There is something different inside of me. Something besides being a boy and a girl and neither. Maybe that something is what kept me alive all this time, kept me from shattering. An emptiness that sustains. “What’s the other part?”
“The other part. You said I’m most of the way there. What’s the last piece?”
“Oh.” He rests his head against my shoulder. He’s breathing softly against me. Night birds circle over the Charles, their dark bodies against the darker sky. “It’s a word.”
“A magic one. But I can’t tell you until you’re sure you want the power.” I almost say I am, right then and there but I hold off. “Because once I say it, you can’t unknow it. It’s part of you. There’s no turning back.” He’s fading again, fading and falling asleep. “It’s up to you,” he mumbles into my shoulder.
I can tell something about Niles Finney: He wants me to say yes. He doesn’t want to show it, can’t, but he wants it. And that makes me want it more. I could solve two problems: End my loneliness and his with one simple move. And I’d be powerful. I slide down a little on the bench and rest the back of my neck against it, my long legs splayed out in front of me.
Maybe I fall asleep too.
Surely this is when you arrive. You hover around me like some beautiful Casper, your Mohawk bouncing and translucent in the night, your smile wide. When I wake up again the first flutters of dawn streak the edge of the sky and the river’s still a dark nothingness beneath us and Niles Finny is still on my shoulder. I feel his body rise and fall with each breath. But when I look down, it’s just me. He’s still vanished. I close my eyes. I ask you for help.
And I’m not ready for the image that comes to me: it’s my dad. It’s not his hardened face, the creased eyebrows and forced frown; this is my dad at the bottom of his well of sorrow. It was just a moment he showed it to me, when we were arguing that last time. It was when he wiped what may or may not have been a tear from his eye. His face is wide open, his sadness right at the surface and it’s because he knew he was about to never see me again. Mom was crying openly by this time. I only saw her heaving up and down out of the corner of my eye because if I looked her dead on, I would’ve broke. Then she looks at me and I expect rage or disappointment but there’s only love in her face. Only love and then it’s the twins; they’re watching me go, crying and now, finally, thoroughly, I’m crying, sobbing actually – not the restrained hiccups of someone that’s trying not to cry but honest, low, wails, and I’m not mad and I don’t feel guilty, I’m just sad sad sad for the loss of my family – maybe it’s for now and maybe it’s forever, but I miss them and I still can’t go back and I know they miss me too. So I let it surge out of me, finally, that sadness, and when my sobbing slows and I open my eyes, I hear the beat drop. The music is tentative at first, a low and steady drum, a few cautious clacks and cymbal flourishes. Then it becomes brave: the bass kicks in, bursts of horns shouting and disappearing. I’ve made my decision, so I look down at where Niles was to tell him and he’s gone. I mean, gone-gone not just disappeared-gone. Must’ve skulked off during my emotional deluge, seen that there was something else there that carries me, even more powerful than the emptiness.
I’m not going home and I won’t disappear. A steady organ spins beneath it all and then the cool, staticy laughter of an electric guitar. It’s the music of victory again, Krys, but it’s not yours this time, it’s something brand new.
It’s me. My music: timid at first and then ferocious, brave. It is the rest of my life.
About the Author
Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Young Adult series the Shadowshaper Cypher (Scholastic), the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series (Penguin), and the upcoming Middle Grade sci-fi adventure Flood City (Scholastic). He won the International Latino Book Award and has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize, the Mythopoeic Award, the Locus Award, the Andre Norton Award, and the World Fantasy Award. Shadowshaper was named one of Esquire’s 80 Books Every Person Should Read. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at his website, on Youtube and on Twitter.
About the Narrator
Nadia Niaz is a writer, editor and academic who teaches creative writing to everyone from preschoolers to postgraduates. In 2018 she founded the Australian Multilingual Writing Project, which publishes creative work that mixes languages. When she’s not working with words she’s either lifting heavy things or dancing.