Science Fiction Transgender Coming of Age

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

The stranger eats like an animal. He tears into the day's bread before I've set it properly on the table, fingers prying apart the hard crust to make way for the porous, soft insides. He eats like he's dying. We're a simple family, it's simple food. A thick porridge of grain with shaved, dried meat and pinches of cheese, topped with fresh herbs plucked from the garden.

The porridge stains his mustache, flakes get stuck in the stubble on his cheeks. "Travel takes it out of you." He says. "You gotta fast for days, dependin' on the when." He drinks greedily from the mead we keep stashed for harvest, emptying the family's stocks in under an hour. He had come when the hour was late, when the bakery was closed. No parents, no family around to contest him, but when the door nearly stuck in his face he stuck out a leather boot and whispered: I'm from the future.

What they say about travelers is simple: seat them, feed them, listen to their story, and then let them go.

Visits are rare here. This village we know means little. We know that by the amount of travelers we actually get. The last was nearly sixty years ago, and whether things changed for the better or for the worse is yet to be seen.

He's scarecrow meet tumbleweed scraggly, all folded up to be able to hunch at my chair. Across from him, I eat at my father's place at the table. My spoon moves through the porridge, stomach soured with curiosity.

"How uh, how far back are you to us?" I ask. "I mean, can I ask that?"

His tongue pokes around his mouth, fiending for lost crumbs of bread. Finding none, his eyes stick up to meet mine. My head throbs they're so blue. "I fasted for two days."

"I don't know how far back that means." I say. I can see the bristles of his facial hair move, giving way to crooked teeth.

"You ain't supposed to."

"Well why not?" I don't slam my spoon down, but I let go of it. My hands span out to me. "What are you here for then?"

"You're what, fourteen?" He's slowed down for now. No cramming food in, just playing with it. "What d'ya know about time travel, son?"

My mouth twists. My hair barely comes past my ears, I don't suspect anyone would call me anything other than son, but I wish he had. "Not much at all."

"Right. Lemme give you the lowdown." The hook of his neck bends to see me. It's like over the course of the meal he got even bigger. The last fading glimpses of sunset cast across his face, lighting those eyes up like sea glass. "Listen close." It's all we're supposed to do, after all.

I lean forward, meeting his intensity. It's the first time I feel something is wrong. Prickles on the back of my neck, a chill that puts goose-pimples up my arms.

"Travelers can only tell you what you need for the immediate future. We can’t be nudgin’ time this way and that, it doesn’t work like that." He leans back, twirling his fork in a swollen-knuckled hand. There are so many callouses on his fingers, I can see every ridge of the tanned skin leathered across those bones. "I know y’all think in fates, or… that even infinite possibility exists in front of you." My head collects pressure, it squeezes, a thick band only growing in intensity. "But we all come from the same place. Maybe not the same time, but we all hop around this—" he waves a hand, gesturing to the wax between us, "like a candle wick. S’always gonna burn. Just a matter of when. We’re the flame." The flame flickers. "Here," and a puff of air to put it out, "and gone." He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a small device, the sparks before it produces it's own flame. It hurts my eyes to look at as he lights it. "It's still the same wick though, can burn from either end."

"What did you just do?" I step over his words, gesturing to the second flame.

He removes his thumb, it's gone. There's a flat look on his face, like he can't believe his example was ignored. "I've never seen anything like that before."

"...It's a lighter." Bored, tired. "It, pfft-it lights things." The stranger waves his hand. I want to look at it again, but it's gone. "You're missin' my point. That's how we can visit."

"But how." I stress it, even if I know that's not what he's here for.

"That doesn't matter." The traveler says, then straightens up. "Here’s the thing, it’s already happened. Already happening. There’s always been just one option. Travelers come when they gotta, and leave because they have to. Everythin’ that has occurred already has, and already will."

He's proud of himself for that line, leaning back and folding his arms. I feel my stomach flip, brows pinched trying to figure it out. "But- what does that have to do with anything?"

"You, gotta come with me." Then he asks for a second course.

It’s quail eggs cracked on top of heels of bread. Slices of garden tomato, then a brothy soup, beaded with oils and fats from the quail legs braised therein. More fresh herbs. This time he says thank you, and this time I can believe it. I want something sweet, but I'm not even hungry. I can hardly stomach what's in front of me.

"Why do I have to come with you?" I ask.

"Things get... difficult if I answer you dead on." The traveler says. "It messes with your brain to hear about the future. Gives you headaches. Can hurt you somethin' awful."

I frown. "Doesn't sound like it'll kill me."

The smile he makes feels unsettling. What big teeth you have. "Well, it just might."

A pause. This sinks in slowly, vertigo washing up like an accident at high tide finally showing up on the beach. The world feels pinpoint. He keeps going. "Lotta time rules, but Time is a law, y'know. All these little sub rules you're supposed to follow when you're hopping around the timeline." I squeeze my eyes shut. What big eyes you have. "Wait-"

He's still talking. "One of those rules, is that you don’t seek yourself out.” He does not move, predator on edge. “You can’t go back to talk to your past self. They say it creates something impossible, somethin’ that destroys our ability to travel altogether. But how’s that somethin’ they know? Wouldn’t have someone ruined everything already? Torn a hole through time, if we wanna say Time can be torn?"

My head rests on the wood of the table, staring up at this man. This man as he reveres time, as the idea of Time slices through my brain like clay. I blink, then keep blinking, watching the technicolor explosion behind my eyelids. "You know it’s weird, right? Deep down, you know either we’re already screwed- or it doesn’ matter, because it can change things. Because it can alter time. We can talk to whoever we like, but it ain’t gonna change, it’s already happened. But ourselves? We’re the only malleable piece. Only we can change ourselves."

"Why do you want me to go with you?" I breathe out. Panic feels silly now so late. Dad won't be home until tomorrow. It's just me, and the funny thing about being a teenager is that you don't think you can be hurt until you just might be. You think you're invincible because you are- until someone shows you different.

The scars across his hands and arms, the stretch of his sunburnt shoulders pocked with freckles, the same shock of red hair that he sees across the table. The traveler has said it all without words. I barely mouth for him to stop, but he says it regardless. "I am you."

And it can't be true. He can't be sure, can't know. I can see similarity but I can't see me. Staightening up, I look at all of him at once. Leaning forward, I gaze into the open maw that is my older self. I don't want to look stray dog-like, unkempt with facial hair and a scraggly chin. I don't want to wear leather boots like his. I don't want to have his teal eyes reflected back with me. My throat is tight. I don't want that to be me. I don't want this to be what I look like. "No." I say softly, and the traveler laughs.

"No?" A mocking tone. "I know you. I know what waits for you. You don't want this life. This two-second tragedy roller coaster. You want what I can give you. A way out."

"How?" I press. I want answers. The gut is screaming through the nausea to know more, to be sure. It can't be this simple.

"We have to remove ourselves from time." It's careful, the wording. It's we, now. Not just me, him and I. The us that is each other. “I think it’s time for the third course.”

I stand up. "No thank you." I want him to go. He has given his advice and I have decided to listen. My head swims. “I think we’re clean out.”

He's gotten up now too, following me with a predatory stalk. "I didn't have to explain everythin' to all our prior years. They saw the opportunity n' took it. Took it with open arms."

I start looking for something in the house, but the world is still spinning. Words stick to the roof of my mouth. My mind races for the times in my life I've felt his presence, and I realize I can't find anything. I can't remember anything save this year. "I don't- I don't want to go."

"Anything's better than this damn present." He snaps, different suddenly. A scrunched up, angry face, a tilted head, narrowed eyes. "You want this life to break you? It's life comin' for you, after all. It'll never let you get up." There is no chance to brace myself for what he tells me, he just grabs the knife and tells it.

"You want your daddy to get worse? You want him dead? You want to see this house fall?" I don't make it far away from him. I miss on trying to brace against the wall and hit the floor instead. The traveler looms closer, circling, defiant. "You wanna lose this house? You want the fires to come?" My brain sparks and spasms, and I grab my nose as blood suddenly bursts through one of my nostrils. Stop, stop, but it's just the future now. The things that will destroy me if I hear them.

I thrash, and he calls every story that will befall my life and my family if I do not go. Panting, sweating on the floor of my family house, I can only lay out, a overexerted animal waiting slaughter. "Let me have this." The man says, who is not me. "You can be free of all this, if you just come with."

Picture this: In your future, you will go back in time to devour every single year of your past life. Your childhood, stepping up from stealing infants to coaxing toddlers to follow you past the horizon line bent towards the trees. Somehow, up to the start of puberty, you have convinced every you to evade what you have deemed an unfair tragedy. The unfair tragedy of your life that you have lived, that you have decided no other you should endure, regardless of the fact that you have already endured it. You come now to face your teenage self, missing every piece of memory you have stolen, and they tell you no.

I’m not on my feet yet, but the wavering of my voice no longer resembles fear. If he wanted to kill me he would have already. He needs something from me. Agreement, maybe, but I haven’t given it to him; and it is ruining everything. "But we have to be the same for this to work, right?" He does not answer me. “Right?”

He could back off. He could come to the year after me and cut me off that way, trap me in nonexistence, but no. Either he hasn’t conceived of it yet, or he knows it won’t work. My lips break into a smile. The same too-big, too-crooked teeth mirrored in his older features. “What’s your name?”

"Same as yours." He says, but I tell him I don’t. So he mouths it, the name of the one I have lived with since I was born, the one chosen differently. I shake my head, shakily beginning to sit up. “No. It’s not.”

Here's the truth about timelines: when pieces are removed, others are put in their place. Time can be altered- but holes fill themselves. You leave a blank space, and something finds a way to fill it. Brains do the same thing, so do forests. Something will bridge the gap. Something will grow, and it will be different.

Looking back at him, his eyes are wide. The step he takes back away from me echoes across the wood floors. The house responds. The house rejects him. “We’re the same blood. The name our folks gave you binds us no matter—”

“It doesn’t matter.” I say it firm. “I’ve chose. I’ve chosen. I am different. And you know what? I think I don’t need you.” One foot and then the other, back on my feet. “I think you need me. I think you’re already out of time.”

I do not have to reach for him to stagger backwards. Someone so tall shouldn’t be so frightened of me, but it’s his turn to find a corner to cower in. He paces, then sneers. It’s animalistic, lips pulled back, face made up all of angles now. “No, no. I’m finishing this!” The traveler growls. “I came here, you’re comin’ with me.”

Turning sharply, he rears back and rushes toward me. I should move but I don’t, instead shutting my eyes tight. It’s bright again, the lids of my eyes read orange and yellow and white, but I don’t dare open them. The air is too warm and thrums, alive with new sound. We pass through each other, impossible ghost ships brushing hulls. That thrumming remains, a heartbeat overlapped and looped.

When my eyes open, both of us are fading. Turquoise and lemon. My one silhouette verses him and all the youngers. Every gossamer and glowing shape trapped inside of him, each with their own unique heartbeat. I reach for what is left of them, all of the us that is left, and ground us here. My fingers spread, a new warmth in my chest growing. A heartbeat, one, two. Like a proving box with aging yeast, like dough rising as it bakes, like embers awoken with a stick poker, the heat rising from the oven. My mouth forms my truth. “My name is Crane,” I say, staring into the blue of his eyes. They are open. They are afraid, “and I am not a boy.”

From the top of the hill, fire roars. Some say it was an explosion, an under-cleaned oven finally reaching its boiling point. Others deem it a fluke, a mistake on behalf of a baker’s instructions. Yet the Baker is rushing into the crowd, his eyes wide and frantic. Sturdy hands nudge people aside, first gentle now forceful. That’s his house, that’s his house, and his back hurts again like when he lost his wife. He can’t do this again, can’t do grief twice over. For so long he has been Baker, but for longer he has wanted nothing more than to be Father.

What a relief he must have felt then, seeing his lone daughter with the town doctor checking her over, alive.

September 06, 2022 09:34

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