Trigger warning: Transphobia and mention of suicidal ideation
A lot can happen in a year.
For example: Around this time last December I spent a good ten minutes trekking through rows of sleek polyester suits and shiny Oxford shoes at Men's Wearhouse, searching for a Christmas gift for my younger brother, Justin. Today, I'm trudging endlessly through Macy's, fingering floral blouses and nylon bras and yoga pants, trying to find something for my younger sister, Dawn. They're the same person, Justin and Dawn.
We discovered that last month at our parent's house. As Dad was hunched over the Thanksgiving turkey, lancing the white meat with the precision of a surgeon, he suggested we go around the room and say what we were thankful for. He nodded to the cornucopia of food on the dining table and gave his usual answer—indoor plumbing—and Mom gave hers—friends, family, and red wine. No sooner had I declared my thanks for the football game playing on the TV than Justin looked at each of us—first Dad, then Mom, then me—and said, slowly, "I'm thankful that we live in a country where I don't have to hide who I am. Where I can be my true self." He paused before saying, "And I'd like you all to know that this isn't my true self. My true self is a woman: Dawn."
All at once it felt like the air left the room, like we were adrift in outer space, some far-faraway galaxy, anywhere but in that moment.
Dad stopped, his carving knife lodged in the heart of the turkey like an accusation, and looked at my brother as though his statement might simply have been a late April Fools' joke. Mom drew her glass of red wine closer, took a drink. From my spot on the couch I could feel Justin's eyes on me, pleading, but I turned and stared at the TV, watching as one of the quarterbacks threw an incomplete pass. We didn't say a word.
My brother cleared his throat. "I started transitioning a few weeks ago," he whispered, barely audible over the sports commentary. When we remained silent, Justin excused himself to his old bedroom, locked the door, and stayed there for the rest of the night, even after it was time for me to drive him home. I left without him. Even now I'm unsure how he got back to his apartment the next day, though I suspect our father had nothing to do with it.
Like I said, a lot can happen.
Dawn wants clothes for Christmas. Not a Nerf gun like Justin wanted when he was eight, or a PS3 when he was twelve, or the autographed Tom Brady football he begged for when he was seventeen and the high school quarterback. Clothes.
Hence the hour and a half we've spent browsing in Macy's.
"Thanks again for doing this, Richard," Dawn says, for the sixth time. Like I have any more experience than she does at this kind of thing. Like I'm any help at all. She grabs a black cocktail dress off the shelf, twists it from side to side, presses it against her body. The silhouette of her budding breasts, courtesy of her hormone therapy, pokes through the material.
Turning the other way, I tell her, "Yeah, it's no problem." It's what I've told her the other five times. But that's not really what I want to say, and maybe my sister knows that. Maybe she knows the reason I accompanied her here is because I feel guilty about what happened last month. Maybe she even knows what Dad said in the kitchen when she went to her room and wouldn't come out.
By way of distraction, I run my hand over a sign advertising a BOGO sale. "You know," I say, "it kind of defeats the purpose of a Christmas present if you already know what I'm going to get you."
Dawn shakes her head. "Oh, you don't have to get me anything. We'll say you coming here was my present. Deal?" She's still holding the dress to her body. "How does this one look?"
I offer a noncommittal grunt that hopefully sounds like assent, then look away.
Outside, the parking lot is filling with snow. It was clear when we pulled in, and I thought maybe we would've been done by now and beat it, but it's coming down in flashing red-and-green flakes. I'm tempted to tell Dawn that we have to go, that I'm no good driving in the snow, which isn't a lie, but I know how selfish that sounds. So I step away for a bit and browse the men's section.
The store is decked out in holiday spirit, everything red and white and green. A mix of peppermint and gingerbread permeates the air. Music streams from a set of speakers I can't see, pop songs full of bells and finger snapping. The mannequins are dressed in ugly Christmas sweaters with images of reindeer and cheesy taglines. One of them says "Yule Miss Me When I'm Gone," which I disagree with, and prove that by walking away from it.
But the weird thing is, five minutes later, I do start to miss that tacky sweater. Or at least the thought of it, because it's something that Justin would've worn proudly to a movie date or to football practice. And he would've pulled it off too. I know it. He had that kind of magnetism that lulled people like a hypnotist.
Across the lobby, Dawn peruses the bra section. She's holding one in each hand, squeezing them gingerly. But from where I'm standing, the whole scene looks off. My sister has only started to transition, and though her body is bending to the will of the hormones, though her facial hair is thinner than it's been in years and her baritone voice has elevated to a tenor and the muscle mass gained from years of football practice is deflating the way I've read it's supposed to, I worry that she doesn't look enough like a woman. I worry what other people think of her.
And maybe I worry what I think of her too.
It's weird to say that you want to be like your little brother when you grow up, but that's the way it was for me. Though I'm two years older than Justin, I couldn't help but admire him. Where his body was thin and taut, mine was doughy and ungainly. I came to every one of his football games, and maybe I thought that if I watched him enough, if I copied his every move later in the dark recesses of my bedroom, I could will my body to be more like his.
It was at one of his football games that I had my first kiss. His name was Bryan. He was in my calculus class.
When Bryan came over, I was sitting on the bleachers, waiting for Justin to emerge from the locker room so we could head home. At the time, I couldn't admit to myself what I know now, the type of person I turned out to be, the type of people I turned out to love. All I knew back then was the sound of Justin's voice, calm at first but then panic-stricken, calling my name over and over again from the middle of the football field, as Bryan and I hid under the bleachers and ran our hands over each other.
I've never told anyone this story, not after Justin had called Dad to pick him up and the next day my father asked me where I'd been, how I could've neglected my brother. Not even when I said nothing and he laid his hands on me.
I never told anyone, because I wanted, just once, to have more power than my brother.
It's Dawn who finds me standing by a display of novelty T-Shirts. "I'm done," she says, now carrying a shopping basket congested with clothes—evening wear, underwear, swimwear, you name it. At the top of the stack is the black cocktail dress.
"Hey, you've gotta see this Rudolph shirt," "I say, trying my best not to look at her stockpile. "It says 'Yeah, but can Pinocchio do this?'"
Dawn offers me the same noncommittal grunt of assent I gave her earlier. Not even the hint of a grin.
Justin would've loved it.
I try not to be offended as we make our way to the checkout line. Dawn taps her foot in time to the Mariah Carey song that's playing, mouths the lyrics "All I Want For Christmas."
The cashier, a teenager with a minefield of acne and a crooked name tag that reads "Caleb," rings up Dawn's clothes. He whistles when he's halfway through the pile. "Wow. You're gonna make some lady very lucky with all these," he says, and scans a silk nightgown.
A jolt passes through my body. I take a step back, wondering if it's too late to disguise myself as an onlooker, someone who just happened to be passing by this impending trainwreck.
Dawn looks at the cashier, her face unreadable. The debit card in her hand trembles. "They're for me," she whispers.
"Come again, sir?" Caleb asks, apparently too preoccupied with scanning Dawn's dresses to pay attention.
She's louder this time, my sister. "I said they're for me. The clothes are mine. I'm the lucky lady." Her voice cracks on the last word.
The cashier pauses. It's like a tableau, seeing him standing there behind the register like one of the store's mannequins, one hand on a cocktail dress and one limply gripping the scanner. For a brief moment I'm reminded of our father at the dining table, his hand on the knife inside of the turkey, his face looking like he was the one getting cut open. Caleb tilts his head up to meet Dawn's gaze, stopping briefly at her chest. A look of realization crosses his face. His eyes widen.
Then they drop and crinkle under the weight of a smile.
"Right on," he says, and there's no malice in his voice, no reproach, only respect. "My bad, I wasn't thinking. Sorry about that. I hope you enjoy the clothes, ma'am," he tells my sister, and then he's back to scanning.
I watch as my sister's shoulders relax and the muscles in her arm vanish. A small smile takes the place of the grimace she had a few seconds ago, a little victory. And just like that, the trainwreck is averted.
Caleb makes small talk as he goes through the rest of the clothes, asking Dawn about her holiday plans. He speaks now like a friend, a confidante, someone who understands what makes her tick. And he's still smiling when he bags the last of the clothes and tells her how to insert her debit card into the machine and asks if she wants to make a donation to the less fortunate.
Which she does.
"Merry Christmas," Caleb says when the transaction is finished and we're gathering the shopping bags. This, even though the sign on his desk says "Happy Holidays" in big, bold, secular lettering. But that doesn't stop Dawn from smiling and saying "Merry Christmas" right back.
The snow in the parking lot crunches under our shoes. It's really coming down now, burying our footprints as soon as we make them. The wind rattles Dawn's bags but she holds onto them like lifelines.
In the car, Dawn places her bags gently in the back seat as though they're children. She even slides the seatbelt over them, just to be safe. The door is hanging open and snow lands in the interior, but I don't mention that.
When she's ready, Dawn takes up the passenger seat. She's got one bag on her lap that wouldn't fit in her game of Car Tetris, and her black cocktail dress peeks out the top of it.
She stares through the windshield at the beginnings of a white Christmas. "Thanks again for—"
"You don't have to keep thanking me," I interrupt, sticking my key in the ignition. "Seriously."
"Okay." Dawn shivers and rubs her hands over her arms. Her teeth sound like ice hitting the bottom of a glass. It occurs to me how cold it is, how cold things have been, so I start the car and let the heated seats work their magic.
A question comes to me as we're pulling out of the lot, one that I've been thinking about for the past month.
"The name," I say. "Out of all the names you could've picked, why'd you choose Dawn?"
For the first time, her grip on the bag slackens. She's still staring straight ahead, but her eyes are a little different in the December glow. Wistful, maybe.
She says, "You know something? I never really enjoyed football."
"What? You never told me," I say.
"Well, I'm sure there's things you don't tell me."
My foot eases off the gas a little. "Like what?" I say, trying to keep my tone even.
Dawn shrugs, continues: "But Dad kept pushing me to do it. It didn't matter that there were other things I liked, other things in school that I was better at. He wanted me to play like he did. And I didn't want to disappoint him."
I'm dragging the car along the road at a snail's pace. The snow buffets the windows.
"And I knew, even back then, I knew that I wasn't comfortable with who I was. Not just the football stuff, but everything. I always felt like I was trying to be something I wasn't."
The car behind us honks. It takes me a second to realize the light is green, has been for some time perhaps.
"I was thinking about doing something to just stop it all, you know," Dawn says. "I knew I wouldn't go through with it, but it got pretty bad some days. And I saw a quote once, during one of those bad days, that said 'Things are always darkest before the dawn.' It sounds stupid, I know, but it gave me some hope. That's all I needed back then. Just something to tell me that everything would be okay someday."
I look over to Dawn, expecting more, but her eyes are closed and her breathing is steady. I know she's not asleep, but she's clearly done talking.
And it's at that moment that I decide not to tell her about what our father said in the kitchen last month. How we stood side by side at the sink, him washing dishes and me drying them. How he glanced over his shoulder, making sure Justin wasn't there listening, and sighed.
"I give up," he'd said. "I don't know where I went wrong with your brother. It was bad enough when he quit football on a full scholarship, but now he thinks he's a woman. God, give me a fuckin' break. Can you believe that?"
Then he rinsed his hands under the scalding water and clapped me on the shoulder.
"At least I still have you," he said, looking me straight in the eye. "You're the good one. Always were, I'm tellin' you."
And I knew then that I couldn't tell him my own truth—couldn't tell him I was gay.
Up ahead now, further down the road, there's a patch of light on the horizon, a break in the snow, the calm after the storm. I drive toward it slowly, knowing that we'll make it home eventually.
In the seat beside me, Dawn holds her bag to her chest. Her eyes are still closed. She's running her fingers along the dress on top of the pile like it's made of gold. And it might not be a varsity jersey, but it's making her smile right now just the same.
You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.
Incredible writing. You’ve captured the tricky pull and push of family expectations succinctly, and conveyed how powerful roles and traditions suppress identity. I was really moved reading this story. Thank you.
Belated thank you, L! This is such a beautiful comment from a writer with your talent. Thank you, thank you.
Really lovely writing. The character dynamics between both siblings was very spot on. I particularly enjoyed the snippet where Dawn is checking out her clothes, it read very believable.
Thank you very much, K. Writing sibling dynamics isn't my forte, so I'm glad to know it clicked here.
Hey Zack! Another lovely, complex story. Others have mentioned your choice of POV being Richard as the right one, and I agree. He's got his own problems -- can't come out himself, jealousy of his younger brother (and maybe now his younger sister, as she *did* come out and it's just one more thing she did better than him), and shame at how he treated her. So there's conflict. The line "And maybe I worry what I think of her too." is perfect, it captures that spirit. It's a secret conflict too. The whole story is about secrets. Both siblings ...
If I could like your comment more than once, I swear I would. Seriously. You got exactly what I was going for with this story, 100%. (Now if only you were a Reedsy judge, LOL.) In fact, you went above and beyond because Dawn's name didn't go beyond the quote for the title, so I can't take credit for it being symbolic of her revealing anything. For real, you hit on everything I was worried wouldn't come through the page: Richard's jealousy of Dawn and the cashier's supportiveness, the theme of transition and attitudes between generations. U...
Glad to hear it :) It's easy with engaging stories.
Hi there pen pal friend! Such a great, emotional story you gave us here. There was sooooo much depth packed into both of these characters. You know how much I love me a good sibling story, and you captured how complicated family dynamics can be with this piece. You really did a nice job of showing us how heartbreaking things can be for our LGBTQ+ community. Both the POV narrator and Dawn had their own struggles to work through here, and the fact that Richard had to keep his truth hidden because of family expectations and obligations hits h...
A belated thank you to you, friend! Glad to see you made it home from your work conference in one piece. (How was it - one great big vacation? 😏) Your sibling story love seems to be infectious, because this was the second one in a row. There's just something about the brother-brother/brother-sister/sister-sister dynamic that's compelling, am I right? So unlike any other relationship/bond you'll ever have. This was a hard one to write. Lot of the parts hit home for me too. And I'm very glad to see you were conflicted on Richard's character....
Somehow I forgot to actually like the story lol. Sorry! (also, came to upvote the Michał comment because yes) PS - work vacay was good. Too many margaritas by the water...
This was excellent. The part where the cashier says Merry Christmas even though all the signs around say 'Happy Holidays' and then Dawn says it back fascinates me. I can't help but think about the rules of being politically correct. The cashier immediately apologizes to Dawn when he misgenders her, but they both don't give a damn about being inclusive when it comes to Christmas. It reminds me of Trump yelling that 'they're' trying to cancel Christmas' lol Idk I really liked it. It's like society is moving along w/ regards to inclusivity in s...
Thanks, Scott! You were one step ahead of me on the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays bit. I didn't even consider the irony of the situation. That's pretty damn funny. Thank you for the department store comment. At the start of writing this, I'd considered doing online shopping, but switched the plot to Macy's to focus on the physical aspects (setting and Dawn's body), so that's some sweet vindication to read that. Thanks again.
Hey, hey! Thanks for sharing another one of your masterpieces with us - I look forwards to then so much I picked up the habit of leaving your Reedsy page open on my phone when I go to bed on Friday, and I know a story will be waiting for me there to kick of Saturday with first thing! Love the title. As soon as I read that I new this was gonna be good. Oh and it was! Also, did you just tick off three genre tags in one go? Way to go! Trans was the first that popped into my mind for the same prompt when I first saw them last Friday, but I w...
Super late getting back to you (I DID have a fun weekend), but I'm glad to see your thoughts. (So many too, it always makes my day!) LOL, you have a habit now! I love it. The funniest thing is, right after submitting this story, I started a new one for this week's contest, and yet I know that I'm STILL going to wait until the last minute on Friday to finish it. 😂 Not because I want to, but because I need the pressure of the impending deadline now to actually get me to sit down and write these damn things. Love-hate relationship, anyone? Th...
Hey! (I'm having a garden party with my chickens whilst replying) Glad to hear you had a fun weekend! It's like having fictional children when characters turn out so human, isn't it? (Or is it just me?) :D Can't believe you started your next story straight away... Must be inspired! I can't wait to read it.💕 Also, yes, I too need the deadline hanging over me to push me to finish a story... A love hate relationship for sure, I'm certain I'm not posting anything before Friday evening this week. I've started it though, but I am doing a prompt...
Another top-notch characterization. I love how your stories are never black and white but always willing to explore all the shades in between (no, not *these* shades of grey) and sometimes loses themselves there - the way we all tend to do.
How I look at it is: If one of my stories is black and white, I didn't do my job correctly. Nuance is always going to make for more engaging reading (and writing), and that's what I strive for. Don't always hit the mark, but I'm trying to get better. Thanks again for your kind comments, Patrick.
This story is really powerful, especially if you relate to the two. It grabs at your heart. I found the tiny flashbacks unique, and a good touch to the story.
Thank you very much! I worried the flashbacks were too much, so it's nice to hear your comment.
Of course. I worry about that too at times, so I'm glad my comment cleared that a bit.
Zack, great story. I actually had a tear in my eye. At 59 starting to transition into my true self. A lifetime of living everybody else's expectations of what I should be. Thanks for a great story. Felt like I was right there with Dawn.
Thank you very much, Gigi! Congratulations on your transition - never to late in life to become your true self. I'm happy to know you could relate to Dawn's experience.
Great work. Very insightful and penetrating. Zack, your stories show something that I have rarely if ever seen before on Reedsy. Your comments tend to exceed in number your likes. Your stories move people to talk about them.
Brilliant story! Inner conflicts, either suppressed down or spoken about. Avoiding the question and pushing it to the back of your mind or thinking about it all the time, desperately wanting to say it and be understood but they shove you away. Everyone has struggles like this, not just within the LGBT+. It could be small with big impact or something drastic with only small aftereffects. Even I deal with problems like these. Procastinating the issue, only to have it coming back around to smack me RIGHT IN THE FACE later on in life. We live i...
This reminds me of your previous story despite it being completely different. Richard has a tangled mess of emotions inside of him as he witnesses Justin/Dawn live their life. Very much like how Shelby seemed conflicted and tangled up inside on the previous story. You capture realism extremely well! The dynamic between siblings is absolutely spot on and the tension was like 😬! As usual well done!
Damn, if that first sentence didn't draw the reader in, that first section was a surefire way to hook everyone in the audience. And this entire story is emotional in JUST the right way... it's a huge change, and even though it's hard at first for the main character to see Dawn as his sister (after years and years of recognizing her as his brother), he's making the effort and using her name and pronouns and going shopping and supporting her... I only hope that I'm as supportive for my younger siblings. Great read, thank you!!
Great complexity in this the characters are so vivid and the relationships between them are compelling. Awesome story Zack.
Thank you very much, Graham!
"For a brief moment I'm reminded of our father at the dining table, his hand on the knife inside of the turkey, his face looking like he was the one getting cut open." There are so many moments where you align a character with an object and I think marrying that technique to this concept is so smart and creates this interior tension that I love. Well done.
Thanks, Kevin! I've been trying to use objects more symbolically lately, so it's awesome that you noticed. Great job as a reader!
I love a story looking at family relationships, and you do it so well. You always get down those dynamics in such a realistic way. Telling it from the perspective of Richard is great too, I like that he represents a middle ground between the hostility of the father and the acceptance of the cashier. He's obviously trying to be supportive but still struggling with his own feelings, the awkwardness between the siblings is so perfectly captured you can really feel it. All at once it felt like the air left the room, like we were adrift in oute...
Kelsey, thank you as always! Family dynamics are just so much fun to explore, so I'm forever grateful we've got someone like you on here who enjoys it too. Makes it feel like there's an audience for these kinds of stories. The "far-faraway galaxy" line might be my favorite here (that or the ending sentence), so thanks for pointing that out. Yeah, it's interesting how much of the story is about father and son, despite the father only appearing for a limited time, and only in flashbacks. I hadn't considered the amount of weight Dad had until ...
Honestly the family dynamics/everyday life type of stories are my favourite when the characters are well written like yours always are. I would love to see this family revisited for another story, I was actually thinking at the end there is so much there to explore if you felt inclined! It's funny sometimes when I write I forget the characters as soon as the story is done and have no further interest in them, others stick with me and I keep thinking ... but what then, and what if, etc.
Great exposition: I love how the setting and establishing actions reflect the figurative: it's not just the turkey that gets a carving but the rigid gender binary. Clever. I like the fact that it is not clear cut; that there might well be avoidance and confusion at the beginning of something as monumentous as this. I have an old friend back home whose son transitioned and I remember her telling me how the younger brother wouldn't talk to his sibling for months. Now it is all water under the bridge but it was quite a bit of upward paddling fo...
Thank you, Rebecca! Your analysis of the turkey as a figurative stand-in is amazing. I'm not sure if I'd even considered that myself, so you're really making me feel clever. I could definitely see some siblings be the ones to take this kind of news the hardest, since they grew up together with the other transitioned/transitioning sibling, so it's a fascinating anecdote to hear. Thanks for this comment!
Wow. So much emotion packed in this story. Such a brave character, Dawn/Justin. Coming out on Thanksgiving, of all times?! It took some guts, good Lord! I was floored when I read that line of the dialogue. Also loved the relationships between the two siblings. Richard was such a good brother, helping his brand-new sister with her makeover. Such a brilliant take on the prompt, btw. The exchange with the cashier made me cringe at first. I was crushed for a second for Dawn, thinking she's going to be humiliated there by a mere stranger, as I...
This is one of the nicest, most amazing feedback comments I've ever received, so before all else: Thank you so very much for this, Gabriela. I'm really glad this one worked for you. Writing this, I felt like I was stretching the limits of the prompt, so it's nice to know that it felt like it was in line with what was being asked. I love your read of the father so much, being too afraid to speak up but willing to say it behind his child's back. I hadn't even considered that. I really took a liking to these siblings, so maybe that Christmas di...
Zack, I'd submit this outside Reedsy, absolutely. I am quite surprised it's not on the Recommended Stories tab. I wasn't even aware of such a thing to check. Well, I'm fairly new still to the intricacies of Reedsy inner working ;) I was sincere in my feedback and you can always count on me for feedback, if you trust it ;D Take care.
Btw, Zack, use my feedback/ideas as you please. It's YOUR story ;D Good night.
I love the cashier’s reaction: "Right on," he says, and there's no malice in his voice, no reproach, only respect. "My bad, I wasn't thinking. Sorry about that. I hope you enjoy the clothes, ma'am," he tells my sister, and then he's back to scanning. This is awesome for so many reasons. I’m still learning about transgender language and issues and I know I usually say the wrong thing, stories like this and shows like RuPaul’s DR help teach us and generate empathy and kindness and understanding. The father in your story never really knew his ...
Thank you, Sharon! I was hoping the cashier's reaction came off as understanding and not hackneyed, so this is great to read. Side note: RuPaul's DR has literally taught me SO much, you don't even know. 😂 I'm right there with you. Confession: I don't even know the rules of football, and I'm American. (I had to Google stuff just to write this story.) 🤣 Just don't get it, nor do I get the hype for it. But I could definitely see a father prioritizing it over the happiness of their child, and you're right: weird. Thanks as always for your kindn...
Zack, once again, wow. Did not expect the plot twist with Richer being gay. That was a really nice twist and it gave a lot of dimension to him, so good job on that! I couldn't help but be reminded of my relationship with my sister while reading this story. It's interesting to read from the sibling's perspective, and it leaves me wondering if any of her thoughts have ever lined up with Richard's. I don't think that writing this from Dawn's perspective would've made quite the same impact, so kudos on writing it from Richard's instead. The...
Late, but thank you so much, Kai! When I finished writing this story, I was looking forward to your opinion so much on this one, because I figured of all my friends on Reedsy, you'd be the most knowledgeable about this topic. Halfway through writing this, I was kicking myself for not writing this from Dawn's perspective, so thank you for reassuring me that Richard was the correct choice. Like you, I'm LGBTQ+ with a sibling, so I've thought a lot about that kind of stuff too. Very glad to know this story took you on the emotional rollercoas...