Chapter 1: Staring at the Sun
I couldn’t have told you why, but for my entire life, in about half of my dreams, I was a girl. Given that I have no experience being a girl, it was always a poor approximation. I didn’t have breasts, my hair felt more like a wig than an actual part of me, it felt like I had sandbags strapped to my hips rather than my body actually being like that. I remember this dream particularly well both because of what happened in the days after, and also because I had four arms.
I was sitting cross-legged on a field of glass the size of the entire universe. In my arms was some sort of machine. If I had to put words on it, I’d say that it looked like a cross between a violin, a reliquary, and a gun. It had a central body in the shape of a rounded oval, with long prongs and tines sticking off like antlers or tree branches. The central body of the thing was covered in tiny protrusions, ridges like gills and knobs like pyramids. All in all, it was maybe three feet long and two feet across. I was playing around with it, like it was a particularly complicated calculator whose functions I hadn’t totally explored yet.
I looked up from the weird machine for just a moment. There was a light there, a light like staring into the sun. I was blinded, though it didn’t bother me.
“Our project is not ready,” said the light.
“And yet the hateful ones are already there,” the light continued. “They fall around its home as we watch. It will have to be ready, or it will die.”
“Such is the tragedy of it, yes,” the light added.
I didn’t really care for all the prophesying about “hateful ones” and “projects” and stuff. This machine was just so fascinating. I knew there was a pattern to it, a method behind controlling its functions. If I could just…
The loud trilling of the lunch bell interrupted whatever thought I was having and yanked me out of the dream like the fish who got hooked. I was back to being male, back to having two arms, and back to being face down on my desk in fourth period math class. I hadn’t slept too well the night before, and Mr. Walker’s never-ending drone about methods of integration was without a doubt the most effective sleeping agent known to human science.
I gathered up my things and headed off to lunch. For whatever reason, as I hefted my stuffed backpack onto my shoulders, I was hit by a sudden burst of soreness. First stomach pains keeping me up all night, then this. Wonderful.
My high school, North Broadleaf High, was a small, three-building affair in the center of a city of fifty thousand in the absolute worst part of central California. I mostly kept my head down as I left Hall A and headed for the cafeteria on the other side of the campus, walking around the small tree planters and concrete benches that were apparently considered to be stylish.
“Ow! What is wrong with you?”
I looked to my left, seeing someone I only vaguely knew having just fallen on the ground. I think his name was… Ray or Roy or maybe Ron, something like that. He was small, skinny, well over six feet but built like a gazelle. His glasses had been knocked off his face in the fall and he was looking up with a mixture of fear and hatred at… Ian Underwood.
Ian was the type of person who you know is going to grow up to be either a drug dealer or a stockbroker. His family was rich enough to give him a complex about it, but not rich enough to keep him from going to public school with the rest of us. He was also one of the local drug dealers, and hadn’t been able to get a girlfriend since junior year when the word got around that he’d punched his ex in the face during an argument. A real piece of work.
“You pushed me over, you asshole!” said the guy who’d been knocked over.
“Well what are you going to do about it, fag? Complain about me to your boyfriend? I’d love to see that,” Ian said, smirking. I had no idea if he was straight or not, but it didn’t matter. I kept walking, seeing as how I valued the integrity of my teeth, but slowed down.
“I’m not a fag,” Ian’s victim complained, getting to his feet.
“Oh yeah, sure.” Ian ran his hands through his blonde undercut in a show of mock-apology. “You know, if you wanted to be a fag you could just go back to Mexico and s—“
“Leave him alone, Ian. I didn’t know your ideas were as old-fashioned as your clothes,” I said, stepping in.
Ian turned to me, then looked down at his honest-to-god leather jacket. “Wow, Alex. That’s a lot of bravery for a weakling like you. What is he, your boyfriend?”
“No, but it’s not like that’d be a bad thing if I was! Maybe you should rethink things and stop being such an asshole. Get a little perspective.” I knew I wasn’t going to get to him, but the more nonsense I spouted, the better of a chance whatshisname would have to get away.
Ian cracked his knuckles and stuck his chest out in an attempt to look bigger than me. Considering I was three inches taller than him and fat, it didn’t work. “I guess it makes sense you’d say that. Freaks have to stick together, y’know? I mean, I’ve seen what’s in your notebook, you furry weirdo.”
I’m pretty sure I went a bit pale when he said that, and not just because I was sick. The two weeks in junior year after my private art notebook was stolen and its contents shared online were quite possibly the worst time of my life. At least, so far.
“Don’t bring that up,” I said, trying to sound at least a little tough. “You do know you aren’t making yourself look tough, right? Everyone thinks you’re a prick.” I glanced past Ian’s head. Ron was already gone.
“I am tough,” Ian said, deepening his voice. “And maybe you need to learn a lesson before the next time you call me a prick, prick.”
I tried making myself look taller too, though I doubt it worked. Ian cracked his knuckles. “Back off, before… um…”
“Before what? Before you have to call in your goddamn freak girlfriend to beat me up for you. You goddamn furry freak, I’ll—“
“Mister Underwood!” yelled a voice from behind us. I instantly turned around.
One of the teachers had been assigned to courtyard monitoring, and apparently Roy had alerted her. She came over and gave us both a very stern talk about fighting, blah blah blah. Given that I hadn’t gotten in trouble for beating people, let alone within the last six months, I got the least of it and was able to slip away to the cafeteria.
Miri and Quinn were waiting for me, near a window looking out over the courtyard. I gave Miri a quick kiss on the lips, sat down, and started eating my packed lunch. Mandy, my mother, fancied herself a cook, though as far as I can tell the things she made were entirely pulled out of her imagination.
“So, what was going on out there?” Miri asked, sidling up against me and wrapping her arm around my shoulder. “Were you trying to stand up to Ian freakin’ Underwood?”
Miri was my girlfriend, and had been for the better part of the year. She was small but strong, beautiful and smart, with wavy hair that spilled over her shoulders and pretty hazel eyes that were only emphasized by her square-rimmed black glasses. The only thing that might even be considered a flaw was her somewhat hooked nose and her…erm… less than generous proportions. Obviously, I wasn’t so shallow as to make that into a problem.
Quinn, my other best friend, had been looking at his phone the entire time. “I don’t know how to say this, but I think your boyfriend was trying to make himself look cool.” He looked up. “It didn’t work, by the way. I keep telling you, being a tough guy doesn’t suit you at all, and you should really just embrace being an androgynous blob.”
“Oh my god, I wasn’t trying to be tough, I was just trying to help…uhhhh… what’s his name?”
“Roger,” said Miri.
“Right, him. I just wanted to help him.”
“If you wanted to help him,” said Miri, “you could have called for a teacher. Getting up in his face is just a good way to get yourself in a fight, and then get in trouble. If anything serious happens, you could get your college acceptance rescinded.”
Quinn rolled his eyes at Miri. Quinn was what you get when you took the mind of a sixties hippie and shoved him directly forwards in time. He was tall and skinny, yet surprisingly strong, probably on account of being a swimmer. The bags under his eyes were somehow worse than mine, and he had a scruffy, stubbly chin that was almost but not quite a beard. He also had a weird tendency towards long coats and jeans.
“Ian really needs to get some sense knocked into him, to be honest,” Quinn said. “If he’s still unchecked by the time he gets into… Yale, or wherever he’s going, he’ll become unstoppable. Before you know it, he’ll be a senator or something.”
“But he can learn a lesson without my boyfriend getting beaten to a pulp.” Miri leaned in a little closer, resting her cheek against mine.
I gave Miri another kiss on the forehead. “I couldn’t just leave Roger,” I explained. “By the time I was able to call a teacher, he might have been hurt, or worse. It was like… I could tell that he was scared, that he was hurt, and I knew I couldn’t just leave him like that.”
“Why did he even go after him? What was Ian saying?” Miri asked.
I shrugged. “He was being his usual self. Calling him homophobic slurs and telling him to go back to Mexico, stuff like that.”
Miri gave me a weird expression. “He’s not even from Mexico…”
“Oh, he’s gayer than Neil Patrick Harris, though I’m not sure he’s fully aware of that.” Now it was Miri and my turn to give Quinn the weird look. “We made out at a party one time. He’s too good of a kisser for me to forget about that.”
“That doesn’t matter! It’s still terrible, and I still don’t regret it.”
Quinn rubbed at his jaw. “I wasn’t trying to defend anyone, of course. I just thought it was some interesting information. I still wish you’d actually hit him.”
“And gotten myself in trouble… I might have done it anyway. I’d probably have gotten punched back, and I don’t know if I could take the damage to my delicate visage. And the trouble I would have gotten into would probably be pretty serious.”
“Which, given Ian’s track record, is absurd,” said Miri.
“Touché,” said Quinn. “But such is the folly of liberal ideology. It seeks peace above justice, and punishes the oppressed greater than the oppressor in so doing.”
“Wow,” I said. “You really are a philosopher now.”
Quinn did a little mock-bow, and we all laughed. At least, we laughed until I broke down into a coughing fit.
“Are you okay, lovebug?” Miri asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I came down with something a day or two ago, it’s been making me really, like, tired and stuff. It’s probably something minor.”
Quinn nodded solemnly. “Somebody get out the shotgun, Alex has the coronavirus.”
“I do not have the coronavirus! I got vaccinated, okay? Besides, my breathing is fine. The only thing really wrong is that I’m tired, I have this weird pain in my stomach, and my joints hurt.”
“Oh come on, don’t be mean,” Miri said. “It’s most likely a… stomach issue. Or stress. It’s most likely to be stress; the immune-compromising effects of stress are very well known.”
“You’re probably right, sweetie. It’s just stress… over college and all of that.”
We went back to eating for a couple of minutes, until that segued into a conversation about college prospects (Miri had gotten into Caltech, me into UCLA, and Quinn was staying in Broadleaf and going to community college). From there, the conversation went to random gossip and the romances that had sprouted up (apparently the head of the cheer squad had started dating a member of the girl’s tennis team), and to random in-jokes and other things. It was a fun day, besides the fact that I was as sick as a dog.
The rest of the day was about what you’d expect. No more weird dreams, no more run-ins with violent idiots, just… y’know, high school. I took the bus home, did chores, procrastinated by doodling in my new notebook (this one with a lock on it), and barely finished the homework due tomorrow. Dinner was well-made that night, and not long after it, I started feeling so tired it was like I’d run all the way home instead of taking the bus. With a quick promise to myself that I’d study later, I flung myself into bed, clothes and all.
As I lay there, my thoughts inevitably drifted back to the dream I’d had. I felt like I’d had it before, but I couldn’t remember when, or what the previous dreams were like. All I knew was that I’d had it before. The bodily differences were more confusing, the four-armed girl thing. As exhaustion started to overcome me, I had one of those weird flashbulb memories, and for just a fraction of a second I could remember all of the sensations of inhabiting my dream-self. It was unnerving, dissociating even, like invoking the image of a different body had somehow triggered a mutation in the real thing. I quickly shoved the memory aside, and before long I was asleep.
That morning at about one AM, I was woken up by a sound like a cannon going off somewhere nearby. As was everyone else in the entire city.