Vivian, Radiant

Uncle Jessie crushed Vivian into the snow. The coldness seeped under the flaps of her hunting jacket—at her wrists where her gloves didn’t meet her sleeves, at her back as her shirt rode up over her belt. Blood trickled over her lips from the cut left by Jessie’s pinky ring. Her vision was murky under his clouded breath.

She flailed, wrenched an arm free from Jessie’s grasp, and frantically felt around until she found the pulleys of her compound bow. She ripped the bow from the snow and smashed it against Jessie’s head, and he collapsed.

She got to her feet as fast as she could. The tree line was about ninety feet from her. The trees would provide cover if Jessie pulled his .45. Vivian could make it to the trees, just like stealing second base.

Will sat hump in the pickup, sandwiched between her dad and Rick, a fellow sales rep. Her left leg crooked away from the gearshift and Dad’s belly pressed against her right side. Even with the stark, white mountains and the blue vaulted sky, the trip here had been uncomfortable at best. First, her dad had only spoken a few words to her the whole flight out from Philly. And then there was Dad’s business partner “Uncle” Jessie, and his son, and the nephew. Will was sure Jessie knew about her. But Dad never did anything about Uncle Jessie’s teasing. Like a brother, Dad called him. Will saw him more as Dad’s master.

Every November, Will put on her best butch one leg at a time. She read the newspaper’s sports page the week before they made the trek from Philly to Uncle Jessie’s ranch outside of Coeur D’Alene. She cut her hair short and tight. She packed flannel shirts, duck canvas overpants from Orvis, and her Barbour winter hunting jacket. The jacket was one of the benefits of guilting Dad about how she was a good son on these business trips, that this should be a business expense, and since it was a business trip she should look professional.

When she got the jacket, her sister, Peg, said, “Big whoop, it’s a jacket,” and she said, “But it’s a Barbour hunting jacket. Now I look like Papa Hemingway,” and her sister said, “What? You gonna draw the beard on?” And she would practice her hunting walk—slow movements, careful not to stumble, one move every thirty breaths. She was skilled at developing camouflage.

All the way up, Dad and Rick talked about work. They talked about crossbow sales versus compound sales versus recurve sales. They talked about the 1994 “Get Your Kid Outdoors” campaign.

“Where you going to high school next year?” Rick asked.

“Saint Joe’s.”

“Third generation McAddams,” Dad beamed.

“Playing ball there?”

“Dunno.”

“He’ll try out.” Dad gently shouldered Will.

She winced as a cascading sharpness traveled down her spine. “Yeah. I guess.” Her camouflage was fading.

“Will had the highest batting average this past season,” Dad said. Her Dad put as much effort into butching her up as she did.

“Really,” said Rick. “What was your average, Will?”

“625.” She squirmed a bit at being praised for hitting a ball with a bat.

“625?” Rick paused for patronizing effect. “That’s phenomenal. You have another Babe Ruth on your hands here, Mike.”

“I know. I know,” Dad boasted. “It was like every time he was up, you knew he was going to crack that bat. Now if I could only get him interested in golf.”

“Golf’s boring, Dad.”

“You better not let Jessie hear you say that,” Rick quipped. “You’ll break his heart.”

“As long as you play something. Maybe you can get a scholarship to college for playing ball. God knows how I’m going to afford it.”

Will closed her eyes and prayed for college to come soon and end these trips.

Ahead, the wire and wood-post gate, adorned with a red and white caution triangle, emerged from the soft snowdrifts.

At night, Will would float up the Wissahickon River, along the bluffs. Among the twisted curtains of wisteria, Novo, the Eastern Elk, the last of his kind, would wait for her. She’d throw her arms around his neck, bury her face in his reddish coat. She’d feel the softness of his fur, smell soil and lilacs, and hear distant rain. They’d travel into the deep, dark woods, Novo’s antlers glowing silver in the moonlight. They’d move through brambles past warm, shiny houses dotting the borders of the Wissahickon Valley. Peering in the windows, watching people moving inside, Novo would say, “Time will come. You will be the person you are to be. I will be there.”

Will hoped if she prayed long enough, at some point she’d wake up and be correct. Be the daughter her mom wanted. Be able to show her dad who she really was and say to him, “See. God did make me this way.”

Her sister Peg never had a problem with her being who she was, though she didn’t see the point in becoming a woman.

“You’ve never had a period. It’s not something to envy, in fact it can be cruel sometimes.”

“It means you get to have a child.”

“If you want kids, you can meet a nice guy and adopt mine. God knows I don’t want them.”

“I may not want to be with a guy.”

“Wait, so you’re a lesbian?”

“It’s about who I am.”

“Big words for the little man.”

“I’m not a man.” She turned away from Peg.

Peg sidled up to her and said, “Whatever you want to be is okay with me, but stop being such a girl about it.”

Will’s head sank. Her chin plowed into her chest. Peg lifted her face in her hands.

“I’m kidding, Will. You’ll always be my little sister.”

Uncle Jessie told his son Travis and his nephew Kyle that they were old enough to do the fire themselves. Will sat still, tucked away in the overstuffed wingback chair in the far corner, reading Uncle Jessie’s copy of The Archer’s Bible. Hiding in a tree waiting for the bears to pass.

Travis and Kyle poked at the newspaper ash under the logs, making sparks jump. They added more newspaper, but the fire didn’t take hold.

“Fer Chrissakes, you pansies, can’t you even start a fire,” said Uncle Jessie.

Kyle rolled his eyes. “I dunno. Maybe, the logs are wet. You do it.”

Uncle Jessie bellowed, “I told you to do it.”

Travis flinched. “We’re trying.”

“You sound like your fucking mother, Travis.” Uncle Jessie grabbed another beer from the refrigerator. He leaned the bottle cap on the counter and slammed his palm down on the bottle. “Ow. Fuck.” Uncle Jessie shook his hand in the air. Kyle and Travis guffawed.

“The bottle opener is on the counter right there, retard,” said Will’s Dad.

“Some help you are, Mike. You could have told me before.”

“Looked like you had it under control.”

“When does he have anything under control?” asked Rick.

Uncle Jessie grabbed his crotch. “Bite this, smart ass. Where’s that fire, boys? Hey, Will, what you doing? You staring like a queer or something? Go help those numb nuts.”

Will’s tree was shaken. She smacked her book closed, hoping her father would dissuade Jessie from making her come down. But Dad said, “You heard the man, son. Help those two get a fire going.”

“We don’t need his help, we can do it. He doesn’t know how to start a fire,” said Travis.

“Where is it then?” asked Uncle Jessie.

Will sauntered across the room, making sure to show that this was no big deal, as if she was always fixing the numb nuts’ messes. If she stopped, she would be shaking. If she tripped, she would cry. She paid attention to the folds in the threadbare Persian rug.

When she got close, Travis said, “Nice John Wayne, Willy.”

She repressed a wince. Will guessed that if she started giving orders, the boys would follow. She reached into the woodpile and pulled out a wedge of birch with peeling bark. She handed it to Kyle. “Get your knife and peel this.”

“Who the hell do you think you are?”

“We need kindling.” She grabbed a fire tong, pulled the pieces from the fireplace and placed them in front of Travis. “Split these. They’re too big.”

Uncle Jessie barked, “You heard the man. Get going, boys.”

She separated out twigs and small branches from the half-cord and stacked them as a triangle in the middle of the ash pile. She shredded newspaper, mixed that with the bark shavings, and gently placed them in the triangle. She took one of the pieces Travis had split, placed it in the iron cradle and lit the pile underneath. The wood caught fire, and she added more. Setting the fire would be her task for the rest of the trip, which wouldn’t be so bad. She could focus on this and not have to deal with them.

Travis knelt down next to her and whispered, “Willy, you know what they call bundles of wood used to start fires? Faggots.”

When Will was five, her mom took her to the Academy of Natural Sciences to see a dinosaur exhibit. In the end it wasn’t the giant Tyrannosaurus skeleton or the dino dioramas that interested her, but a small exhibit about recently extinct animals. She became fixated on one animal, the Eastern Elk. It used to range all over Pennsylvania. And it had been alive when her great, great grandfather was alive. That was only two greats, so it wasn’t that long ago. Also, it was huge, one thousand pounds, and its antlers were six feet across. The exhibit didn’t have any skeletons, but they had a cartoon of the large reddish elk standing next to a picture of a white-tailed deer for comparison. Her mom said that the last one was killed a long time ago. Why would we want to kill them all? Mom didn’t know. Underneath the picture was the word Novo. Mom said that was its name. Novo the Elk. Maybe if Will prayed enough, Novo would come back, she’d see him in the forest, and they’d be friends.

When Will was four, Peg would play dress-up with her. Parade her around in their mother’s clothing and high heels.

Mom would tell Dad, “It’s normal. Just a way for him to play with his big sis.”

But occasionally, Mom would see her in a dress with a string of costume jewelry, and she could tell that Mom saw her as a girl. Except for the short hair, Mom and Will looked so much alike in pictures— tall, thin, with delicate features.

When she was six, she and Peg were in the same ballet class, but Will was the better dancer. She’d flit and float about the room, lifting the girls into the air. Her mom was proud of her at recital—one of only four other boys.

Mom would tell Dad, “He’s good. Maybe he’ll be the next Baryshnikov.”

When she was eight, Peg and Will would play ballet Barbies in the foyer for hours.

Mom would tell Dad, “Some boys play with dolls. He’ll be a nurturer. Maybe a doctor, or a therapist, or something.”

When Will was eight and a half, Mom asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

“I want to grow up and be a beautiful prima ballerina.”

That was when Mom made it all stop. Dance lessons, over. Baseball. No touching the dresses. Slacks and Oxford shirts. The dolls donated to Goodwill. Will got balls and bats instead. Mom schooled her in performance. Don’t cross your legs. Relax. You don’t have to look like you’re at attention. Don’t shake someone’s hand like that. Let me show you. Don’t do that. That, don’t!

Each change became a sticky, stinging layer of new, uncomfortable skin. But in her room Will had secret stashes. When she was alone she would lock the door and retrieve makeup and bits of clothing from secret spaces. She’d dress herself out, paint herself into existence.

Up ahead of Vivian, the thicket gave way to a grove, and beyond the grove was a clearing. The flat sky was turning a darker, metallic gray. Maybe an hour more of daylight. If she could get back to the snowmobiles, maybe someone would be there, then Jessie wouldn’t touch her. The worst thing that could happen was that Dad would blame her for ruining the trip. But then she wouldn’t have to come back.

Despite Rick’s size, Will was thankful when she’d get paired up with Rick. He didn’t want much of anything from Will but to be quiet when needed. The frigid air and snowy forest made it easy to be silent.

The tree stand was crowded with the two of them.

“Did you say something, Will?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t matter. Nothing’s been by. I think we got a stinker spot today.” Rick paused. “How’s school?”

“Good, I guess.” Rick talking with her wasn’t part of their script. She wondered how she would get down.

“Will, I want to tell you something. I watch you try and stay out of sight. You don’t try to mix with us, which is perfectly fine.”

Throwing herself out of the tree stand seemed a good option. It was only fifteen feet to the bottom.

“But you know,” continued Rick, “a couple years off, when you get to college, do whatever the hell you want. Do whatever makes you happy.”

“Okay.” Will shifted in her seat, moving toward the ladder.

“No, listen. I say this because, while you’re a good partner up here, sitting so still, I can tell you don’t want to be here. That’s okay. When I was a young kid, I didn’t look forward to my father’s hunting trips, either. It wasn’t until I was older that I appreciated it and took it up again. I’m not saying that’s what you have to do. I’m just saying that for a while I didn’t do this. Couldn’t even think of sitting in a tree stand for hours on end waiting for some deer to wander by. Part of that was because I didn’t want to do it anymore, but most of it was because my father made me. Ya get me?”

Will nodded.

“And choose a college far from your parents. Somewhere you can find out who you are without them, ya know. Somewhere your friends become family. I did that at least. But most importantly, do what you want to do when you get there. You want to do theater, you act your ass off. You want to major in English, write a fucking book. You want to do music, out-compose Mozart. Do what you want. Do who you want. Don’t listen to us. The world changes as you grow older, and the things you did to please your parents don’t really matter. They just make you neurotic. Don’t listen to us old men. We haven’t a fucking clue. We’re all posing at being the men our fathers wanted us to be, and it ain’t cracked up for shit. The secret is, if you’re happy, your parents will, most likely, be happy. And if not, fuck ‘em.”

Rick made Will feel uncomfortable, but also instantaneously became the coolest man she knew.

Will curled up on Novo’s back as they climbed up the mountain. The wind whipped stinging shards of ice and snow at them, but with Novo’s breath, the snow and ice turned to gold and silver dust and glittered through the air. At the top of the mountain, through the blizzard, Will could see the Winter Palace. The bright red crest of the palace crowned through the silvery clouds. The light from the gate cut a path through the storm, showing them the way. As they ascended, Will could hear a choir of children singing. The choral voices soared over the din of the wind and rang out, “Be not afraid. Change is at hand.”

The gas station attendant didn’t look like he belonged out here in Idaho or Washington, wherever they were. His hair was long. He wore a black leather jacket, a royal blue gas station uniform shirt with the collar popped, and a bright shiny red scarf. His fingernails were painted a lush, deep purple. Small chrome hoop earrings dangled from each ear. Will, hiding in the candy aisle, couldn’t help but gawk at him. Here was this gas station boy out in the middle of nowhere, where it was dangerous to be someone like them, at least according to what Peg told her. Before she went on these trips Peg would tell her stories of boys and girls beaten to death for being queer, for being different. She told her of Brandon Teena. But here was this boy in a gas station where lots of people saw him.

Gas Station Boy’s lips were thin and probably cold. With a nice shade of pink to compliment the scarf, a bit of pencil, and some lip gloss to finish, Will could make his lips seem fuller, softer, warmer.

Kyle shoved Will into the Charleston Chews. “Wake up.”

Travis cackled. “It’s past his beddy-bye.”

“Hey, Willy, check this out.” Kyle reached under his jacket and pulled out a copy of Penthouse opened to a scene where a girl was kneeling in front of a guy, his gooey, gloppy emission all over her face.

Will averted her gaze.

“He totally spooged on her. And she loved it. You like spooge, Willy?” Travis said.

“Hey,” the Gas Station Boy shouted. “Put the porn down.”

Kyle ripped at Will’s jacket and stuffed the magazine down her collar. “He’s the one doing it.” Cackling, Travis and Kyle ran out the door, leaving Will with Gas Station Boy and a dirty magazine in her jacket.

“You going to pay for that?”

Will walked up to Gas Station Boy, placed the crumpled Penthouse on the counter, and tried to smooth it out. The edges were stubborn. She tried to smile. “I got to go.”

As she stepped away, Gas Station Boy grabbed her wrist. With the world crashing inside of her, all Will could do was manage a squeaky, “Please.”

Will had lots of friends at four, five, six, seven and even when she was eight. But after eight was nine, and by then she knew all the ways she was different. She would try and talk with other kids, but it was like they could tell she was this mannequin wearing the right clothes, walking, talking, standing, sitting in the right ways. For her tenth birthday, Mom asked her to start making the list of people she wanted to invite to her party, but the last two people she was on regular speaking terms with, Jenny and Gabby, had moved up the social ladder and stopped talking to her. Will wasn’t even on the social ladder. That was when she thought of the zoo.

And that was what they’d done every birthday for the past four years. Mom didn’t want to deal with the extra kids and Will didn’t want to let Mom know that there weren’t any kids to deal with. The zoo was her, Mom, and sometimes Peg. Dad would figure out something else to do.

At the zoo, most animals were grouped, and isolated, according to their differences. Some were allowed to be together, like chickens and goats in the petting zoo, or birds in the aviary, though they were still all birds. And the monkeys and apes were all sad and despondent. They’d shuffle around their enclosure, then when they remembered that they were a monkey they’d burst across, swinging from ropes, and screech at the people staring. One moment still and distant, then angry, wanting to shout, “This is not who I am! This is not where I belong! Look at me!”

At the zoo, people watched the animals and not her. No one really looked at each other.

On her twelfth birthday, she noticed a chimp in the far corner of the chimpanzee enclosure. The other chimps were hanging out together, and this one was huddled in the corner banging its head against a wall, over and over, each time with greater force. Then, with one particularly hard whack that made a small resound in the enclosure, the chimp stopped. No one noticed what had happened. People were moving on. Mom stood by the exit and beckoned. She looked back at the chimp, and on its forehead was a spot of blood, and in its eyes a distance so secret, so familiar.

That night Mom made homemade mac and cheese, and tomato soup. Dad asked, “How was the zoo?”

Will explained the event with the chimp and asked, knowing the answer, “Why do you think she did that?”

Dad said, “It’s sick or something.”

Peg said, “Probably had a fight with her parents.”

Mom said, “I don’t think that happened.”

“I saw it.”

“You only think you saw that. Monkeys don’t get like that, they’re animals.”

“I was there and I saw that happen.”

“I was there too and I didn’t see it. You are misremembering it.”

“Why? Why do you think that?” asked Will.

“Because if I saw that I would have said something to someone and you are only bringing it up now,” said Mom.

Dad asked, “Is there cake tonight?”

Later, she went back to her room, took out her cutting kit, laid out her supplies, freed the blade from the plastic, and went to that old, secret, familiar place.

She tried to hide her glances at the satin pearl gown with the delicate bead trim and the matching heels. She stood at a blouse rack shuffling shirts, catching glimpses of it between each hanger. It beamed moonlight. When Peg walked up to her and whispered, “It’s too expensive,” she wasn’t that surprised her sister had noticed. They were at the store for Peg’s homecoming dress, for a homecoming she didn’t even want to go to. She said it really wasn’t that big a deal, and she didn’t have a date. Mom had convinced her to get some of her friends to go stag.

“It’s your senior year and it’ll be one of those things you’ll remember for the rest of your life,” Mom said.

“You said that of my perm in fourth grade.”

“You still remember it.”

Will pleaded with her sister repeatedly to go, but Peg avoided answering or said no. But then one day after school, Peg said, “It’s all worked out. I’m going, little sis. But you have to promise to go to the pre-dance event with me.”

So a deal was struck. Will would go to the pre-dance event and be social. Peg would go to the dance and afterward give her the dress.

Their mom stood with an armful of dresses, each one more ruffled and garish than the last.

Will was mortified when Peg asked, “Can’t I get a suit?” But admittedly every party dress was a pooper. “Then find me a dress, Coco.”

“We’re looking for a dress. It doesn’t have to be a party dress.” And off she went into the business suit section and found a casual romper-style dress, with a black felt finish and a Madeline collar. She paired it with red tights. Definitely Peg. “You can wear your Doc Martins with this and it’d still look cute.”

Their mom was happy they found something, even though it wasn’t what she would have chosen.

Vivian’s heart was pounding, deafening. She couldn’t hear Uncle Jessie, but it didn’t matter. The swath of snow, grass, and branches she’d left behind her gave him a clear path to follow. In the clearing, footprints plodded down a slight slope, surrounded by a tunnel of denuded aspen. Only a few more steps to home base. Someone would be there; it was almost time to go home.

As they passed through the gates of the Winter Palace and entered the courtyard, Will felt a rapid, growing wave deep in her chest. Around the courtyard stood people with smooth skin and gentle features, people who were neither young or old, male nor female. People of many colors all dressed in gowns of moonlight. Novo knelt, and Will climbed off his back.

Novo nuzzled her hand and spoke. “You are home, beloved. Do not be afraid. I will be with you.”

And out of the heavens appeared a blinding brilliance, bathing Novo and Will. A thousand feathers brushed against her skin, and when they dissipated, only Will was left. And she shone with the brilliance of ten thousand moons.

On every hunting trip Will would plan out her movements before they all settled into the cabin. The fact that everyone was habitual made things easy. Last year had been different. Last year she screwed up.

The schedule was the same. The boys all were sent to bed before ten and the men would stay up another hour or so. If the men were really drunk, everyone retired at the same time. At the beginning of each trip Travis had trouble sleeping and was up and down all night. Uncle Jessie was the first awake, sometime around three. Will’s dad pooped after coffee around five, and he was in the bathroom for at least twenty minutes, sometimes thirty. There was only one bathroom, which was disgusting, but the door closed and locked.

Will determined that she had between twelve and two in the morning to do what she had to. Last year, she’d overslept the last night of the trip, waking up just before two. She grabbed her kit from where it was stashed behind the headboard and crept through the cabin, fast, but quiet. It was never safe, but she needed the release. All trip Uncle Jessie had called her a pussy, or a fag, or a fairy, because Will still didn’t want to learn how to field dress the deer. Her dad was disappointed, because his shoulders rose each time Uncle Jessie said it. Dad would tell Jessie that Will wasn’t ready yet, maybe next year. That was the extent of the defense.

Will folded her pajama pants neatly and placed them on the sink counter. She opened her kit, laying out her cutting pieces. She pressed the tip of the blade into her left calf. A small cut and the bite from the alcohol was enough tonight. The pain first, then the wash of bliss as the inside trickled out. Then someone knocked on the door.

“I’ll be done in a second.”

Will panicked. She threw everything in her kit, grabbed a wad of toilet paper and pressed it against her wound. She grabbed another handful of tissue and wet it under the faucet to wipe down the blood on the floor and tub. When she turned back to shut off the faucet, she knocked her pj pants into the sink. They were soaked.

“Come on, Will. I got to shit,” said Uncle Jessie.

She forgot that she was wearing her pink briefs. She had begged Mom for pink underwear when she was eight and they were boy’s underwear. She still tried to fit into them, though they were faded, becoming threadbare, the elastic wearing out. She was so careful to keep these things hidden about herself. She took care. She planned. She gathered her things. She shut off the light. She unlocked the door. There stood Uncle Jessie.

“You take longer than my wife.” Uncle Jessie turned on the light. “What happened to you?”

“I got my pants wet.”

“Did you piss yourself?”

“No. I. It was in here.”

Uncle Jessie closed his hand in a loose circle and moved it up and down in the air. “Were you jerking off?” he whispered.

“No.”

“Are those pink underwear?” Uncle Jessie grabbed Will’s shoulder and pressed her against the door frame. “You shouldn’t wear those around here.” He leaned down and said in a low, grumbling wheeze, “Someone may mistake you for a girl, and you wouldn’t want that.”

Uncle Jessie’s heavy hand pushed against her shoulder. Will heard footsteps in the living room and Jessie looked away. Will slithered out from his grasp and headed down the hallway.

“Nice ass, Sally.”

This year, she hadn’t snuck off to cut herself. She watched Jessie watch her. Her dad never mentioned anything to her, so Jessie must never have told him. Will kept her distance and tried to avoid being alone with him.

Peg pulled up to a large, colonial-style house. There were several other cars in the driveway and high schoolers milling about outside, smoking.

“I thought we were going to school for the pre-event,” asked Will.

“Stop it, nosy. Be patient,” said Peg. “We’re here.”

“This is the homecoming pre-event?”

She touched Will’s shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll be fun.”

The house was teeming with people. On the stairs, two boys were kissing. In the living room, girls were slow-dancing together. Will tugged her tie.

Peg took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t be worried. These are our people.” She called out, “Claire. Claire.”

A tall woman pushed through the hallway full of partiers. With her red stilettos, she towered over the both of them. Her hair was long, jet black, with blunt, straight bangs. Her long gown and lipstick matched her heels. She had a sparkly black choker around her neck with matching earrings and bracelet. She was beautiful.

“Hi, Peg. Who is the starlet with you?”

“This is Will.”

“I’ve heard so much about you,” Claire said.

“Is it ready?” asked Peg.

“Of course. I have four Boy Scout badges for preparedness. Are you ready, Will?”

“Ready for what?”

“It’s a surprise,” said Peg.

Claire led them upstairs past the kissing boys, past the people with mohawks, past kids sitting on the floor waiting for the bathroom, and into a large bedroom. Across the bedroom, hanging on the wardrobe, was the satin pearl gown with the matching shoes.

“What did you do, Peg?” asked Will.

“Claire works at the store and she got me a discount. I used my money from working at the deli this summer, and with the discount it was enough.”

“I can’t do this. What about Mom and Dad?”

“Fuck ’em. They’re not here. Besides, I really want to see my little sister.”

Claire handed Will the gown. “Hon, it’s not about the clothes. It’s how you feel inside. But if you want to wear this dress, you have to lose the school picture suit.”

They sent Will into the en suite bathroom. She took off her clothes and slipped into the gown. In the mirror she looked like a boy in a dress. At the store, she’d pictured herself magically turning into her real self. She wanted to hide, to rip off her dead skin. She wanted to scream. Peg heard her, came in and hugged her.

Claire stood at the door. “Don’t be sad, starlet. We’re not done yet.”

“What happened to your arms, Will?” Peg pointed at the marks on her inner arms.

Claire interrupted, “Not to worry. Okay, Peg?” She led Peg away to the door. “Let’s bring your sister into the world. Wait out here.”

After Peg was outside, Claire motioned to the vanity and told Will, “Have a seat.”

The vanity was right out of some famous theatre, with wigs and makeup displayed for an actress preparing for a big role. But the role Will had prepared for was being Will.

“What’s your real name? Do you know it?”

Will had always known her name. Though she’d never met her grandmother, it was her name, too. “Vivian.”

“Vivian? That’s a fantastic name. What color is your hair, Vivian?”

Will chose a short, bobbed, blonde wig. Peg’s hair was short and blonde. They’d look like sisters now.

She began to pin Will’s hair back. “It’s a brave thing you are doing. I know being yourself, your true self, can be dangerous.”

Claire fitted the wig onto Will’s head. Though the change was small, for the first time since she was little, she could almost see herself.

“But you need to stay brave. Other people depend on that brave heart. But most of all, Vivian, you must be brave for you.” Claire touched Will’s chest, but then moved her hand to the inside of Will’s arm. She traced a scar, a scar Will had made when she was ten. One of the first.

“The world doesn’t need another dead girl. We need a bright, shining light; your light. You’ve got to fight for yourself, Vivian. That means recognizing who you are, even when everyone else wants you to forget. I know that fear and loneliness seem endless, but you have to reach out, find help, find others like us.”

She spun Will around, then dipped a small applicator into a concealer cream and began to apply it. “You’re lucky. You’re not alone. Your sister loves you. I had five brothers, no sisters. I would have liked one of them to be as loving and supportive as Peg. I have my Aunt Theresa, though, which is lucky for me because she let me move in here after high school. She’s helped me with becoming the woman I am.”

“And that’s what Peg is doing?”

“Right. When I was starting, Aunt Theresa told me to do this—when someone puts you down for being the girl you are, say ‘I am she. I am Vivian.’ Try it.”

“I am she. I am Vivian,” said Will.

“That’s a good first go, but ya got to reach deep down inside.”

Will thought back to when she’d never worried about he or she, to the time when she was Vivian, to a time when she didn’t have to be reminded. Dancing was where she found herself. Dancing in ballet class, twirling and whirling, pirouettes and pliés.

“I am she. I am Vivian.” Her voice bounced off the ceiling.

“Whenever you need strength, remember who you are, and say that.”

Claire finished with a light pink lip gloss. “Vivian, you have a long, wonderful future ahead of you. Difficult maybe, but wonderful.” She turned the chair around and in the mirror was Vivian, radiant. She looked so much like Mom. She started to tremble.

“Oh, honey. Why don’t we call your big sis in, okay?”

Claire pulled Vivian behind her and called to Peg. Peg opened the door and came into the room and tried to peek behind Claire. “Hold on, you’re going to ruin the reveal. Peg, I present your sister, Vivian.”

This was who she’d always been. She knew Peg could see that, because Peg couldn’t stop crying. She knew Peg could feel that, because Peg had never held her that close before.

But with each mile home, Will reappeared layer by layer and Vivian disappeared bit by bit. Peg said they could sneak in, and Will could stay Vivian for a while more. But they should have left Vivian at the party.

Their parents were waiting on the couch.

“Take that off,” Dad said so loud the windows rattled.

Peg tried to explain while Will pulled out the bobby pins. Mom pleaded with Dad not to be so hard on “him.”

Dad ripped the wig from her head. “It’s not coming off fast enough.”

“Stop, Mike. Stop.”

“Listen, Will. You can’t embarrass your mother and me by doing this shit while you’re under our roof. You want to make a fucking fool of yourself when you are older? Fine. You’re on your own then. But while you are here, Goddamnit, you will follow our rules.”

At five they assembled in the living area. Will dreaded this every morning, but especially this morning. She’d been paired up with Dad and Rick for most of the week, and the previous night Uncle Jessie had smacked her on the shoulder and said, “We gonna get ourselves a deer tomorrow, dude?” It was his turn.

Outside, Rick raced off into the black on his snowmobile with Kyle chasing after. Their headlights lit up the mountainside with each dip and dart, each drift and ditch.

Dad walked up to her, gently placed his hand on Will’s back, and asked more than stated, “You guys will be okay.”

“We’re going to be great, Mike. Don’t you worry, we’ll come back with two bucks,” said Uncle Jessie.

Will turned the key on her snowmobile and heard a series of clicks.

“Damn boy, whatcha do?” shouted Uncle Jessie.

“Way to go, Will,” said Travis. “Now we’re going to miss everything.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Jessie and Dad started inspecting the vehicle. Gas in the tank, lights turned on, battery okay.

Dad said, “Throw your kit on mine and ride with me.”

“He can ride with me,” said Jessie. “I don’t mind.”

“No offense, Jessie, but you’d never make it up the trail with the two of you on your sled.”

Travis snickered and Uncle Jessie shot him a scowl.

She put her gear on top of her dad’s and tied it down. Jessie and Travis took off. She climbed on behind her dad and held onto the rails.

“Put your arms around me. It’ll be safer.”

Will seldom ever hugged her father. She moved her arms around her dad’s waist. “You can hold on tighter than that. I won’t break.” As they went into the mountains, Will squeezed her dad. The snow glittered in the headlights.

 

At the top of the trail, over her dad’s shoulder, the massive silhouette of Uncle Jessie stood waiting. She was hoping that Jessie had left with Travis.

“Get your stuff, Will. Let’s go. We’re burning daylight,” said Uncle Jessie.

She grabbed her pack, quiver and bow.

“We’ll see you back here in the afternoon,” said Dad.

“I’ll take care of him, Mike.” Jessie turned and headed down the trail lined with bare aspen to the clearing. Will made sure to hang back some, enough to keep him at a safe distance, but trying not to seem bothersome. They traipsed down the trail through the snow. Her dad stood at the top framed by the tunnel of trees, his face lit by the first rays of sunlight.

Will didn’t recognize where they were headed. Jessie had spotted a small group of deer, and they stalked them the first thing out. Will kept mental notes of things they passed—a grove, a stand of trees, a small mountain creek—in case they couldn’t find their way back.

They broke for a lunch: nuts, water, and jerky. Jessie produced a flask from under his jacket and took a swig.

“We’ll get close enough to them. It’s a matter of time.”

In the clear cold air, the sharp alcohol smell stung her nose. “Yeah. Okay.”

Jessie put the flask away, and the black-checkered handle of a .45 peeked out from inside his snow pants. “Why don’t you take the lead this time? You ever stalk?” asked Uncle Jessie.

“Not really.”

“Well, you’re going to do it today.”

Will soon picked up the trail again. The snow was matted down from their hoofprints, but she couldn’t really tell the direction. She guessed they were headed up the mountainside, where there was less cover and they could see who might be coming for them. Will tried to pick up the pace and maintain her physical separation from Jessie. She could hear Jessie panting as they headed higher.

The sun was getting shallow in the sky, and the shadows of the trees were getting longer along the snowbanks. Will spotted the herd, dotting the landscape like little marzipan deer on icing. She blindly waved at Uncle Jessie to stop, but kept hearing the crunching of snow. She turned back and Jessie loomed over her.

“Will.”

“What is it?”

Jessie punched her square in the mouth and Will hit the ground.

“You’re teasing me and it’s got to stop.”

Will’s world was wobbly and watery.

“I know you want to,” Jessie panted.

She tried to push off the ground, but Jessie descended on her, suffocating her. Color started to drain from the sky, and her vision filled with a swarm of static. Jessie clawed at her jacket and she tried to push him away.

If she died, no one would miss her. Maybe Peg. Peg would. But her Mom and Dad would probably be relieved. They would welcome not having to worry about her embarrassing them. They wouldn’t need to explain her to family or friends. Dad could go on these hunting trips all the time if he wanted. Will had no friends, she had done nothing with her life yet. Maybe this was what was supposed to happen to her. Maybe it was better to let it happen.

“Will.”

Jessie’s shadow moved, and sunlight warmed her face. Then she remembered what Novo had said: she was not who she was to be, yet. She remembered her name, and remembered that brief moment when she could see Vivian’s future ahead of her.

“I am she.”

Vivian reached out for her bow.

No one was at the rendezvous point. Vivian was winded and weak. She clambered around the snowmobiles looking for keys, but none were there. She heard a rustling in a clump of evergreen bushes a few yards from where she stood. She took an arrow from her quiver, strung it in front of the release loop, clicked in her trigger to the loop, and pulled back the bowstring. Her arms trembled. She tried to line up the peep sight with the twenty-yard pin, but she couldn’t get the pin centered. She only had one shot before he’d get off a round.

The bush moved and she let the arrow fly. A piercing wail of pain sounded, and a young bull elk crashed through the thicket. The arrow had landed squarely in his neck, almost invisible except for the orange fletching. The elk bolted into the clearing, stopped and locked eyes with Vivian. Clumps of snow spotted his forehead and muzzle. He blinked, and flakes fell from his eyes and sparkled in the last bit of sun. The young elk shivered, crumpled, and fell. He lay on the ground, heaving, steam curling from his nose and mouth. The snowy footprints started to turn red where he lay.

She knelt next to him. She could smell the soil, lilac, and the promise of spring rain. She lifted the mounds of red wetness, pressing it against his wound, stuffing the blood back in.

“I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to.” Under her hand, his heartbeat slowed. The snow crunched behind her.

“You got one,” said Dad. “Look, Travis, Will got an elk! What’s that? A six point!”

Will, that name was so distant.

“We’ve been out all along the ridge and didn’t get near anything, and here you are back at camp and there’s an elk,” said Dad.

“This isn’t me. I don’t want to do this anymore.”

Dad touched Vivian’s face. “What happened? Your lip is all busted up.”

Vivian buried herself in his chest and sobbed.

“Okay. Okay.” He held her tight. “Hey, Jessie, what happened to Will?”

“Nothing. He fell.”

Jessie tucked his gun under his belt.

“Why do you have your gun out,” asked Dad.

“What does it matter?”

“Did he hit you, Will?”

She nodded.

Jessie said, “Fucking . . . .” and Dad punched him in the jaw. Jessie stumbled, and her dad grabbed his coat and pulled Jessie back into another punch. Jessie threw his arms around him and they crashed to the ground. Dad landed on top and pounded Jessie’s head on the ground.

“Travis,” Jessie called out.

Travis stuttered a step, then stood still. “Dad, come on.”

Dad dropped his guard and shouted, “Stay out of this, Travis.”

Jessie punched him in the gut and the face. He pushed her dad off and got to his feet. He drew his gun. Then she heard a whistling overhead, followed by the thwack of an arrow hitting the ground.

Jessie jumped back and swung his barrel toward her. “Fuck, Rick!”

Rick nocked an arrow and drew a bead on Jessie. “You can stop now. It’s all over.”

“Over, huh? What’s over?” shouted Jessie. “You think you can shoot me before I shoot you?”

She heard the whine of a compound pulley, as Kyle aimed at Rick.

“Good boy, Kyle!” Jessie pointed his .45 back at her dad.

“Dad, come on. Stop, please,” wailed Travis. He swayed in the snow, hugged himself across his upper chest, eyes squeezed shut.

“Such a fucking disappointment. You’re a limp-wristed pussy like Will there,” said Jessie.

Travis buried his face in the crook of his arms. Vivian noticed that he was starting to shake.

“You’re a fucking weak monster,” said Vivian. “Gotta rape a girl out in the woods to feel strong. Huh?”

Jessie huffed. “I didn’t rape a girl in the woods.”

“You tried to rape me.”

“Shut up, you faggot.”

“Don’t call my son that,” Dad yelled as he scrambled to his feet.

“Whoa there, cowboy.” Jessie took a step back toward the body of the elk. The blood wasn’t visible on the ground, though the arrow was still buried in the elk’s neck.

“Don’t do anything you’d regret,” said Jessie.

There was breath steaming from the elk’s nostrils.

“Jessie, no one is going to kill anyone,” shouted Rick. “Put the gun down.”

“I didn’t rape no one. Tell ’em, Travis.”

Travis didn’t move, didn’t look up.

“Travis, tell them!”

Vivian had never noticed how afraid Travis was of his dad. Of course he was afraid. Vivian wasn’t the first person Jessie had done this to. The weight of all their eyes burned against her, except Dad’s. Dad was watching the elk.

The ground stirred as the elk rose to his feet.

“I’ll kill all of you fuckers if I have to.” Spit flew from Jessie’s lips. “In fact, it might be best if you killed your son first, Mike. Save you from the shame of him.”

Dad lunged at Jessie.

A piercing, inhuman scream filled the clearing. Jessie flew up into the air, impaled on the horns of the young bull elk. His body thrashed, casting a red mist over the white snow. The crack of the .45 thundered over them. The elk whipped its head and tossed Jessie across the clearing. His body folded into a ball. The bull reared up and came down in front of her, bowing, blood dripping at Vivian’s feet. She reached out and touched his muzzle. He chuffed, turned away, and headed down the mountain path into a twilight fog.

In the ranger station, she sat sipping poorly mixed hot cocoa and listened to the men lie.

They claimed that they’d thought the elk was dead and that Jessie was showing off. “It was an accident,” Rick said. The rangers said there’d be an investigation, and they may have more questions. Vivian had answers, but doubted that anyone would ask, or if they did, whether they would listen.

Travis, wrapped in a blanket, was sitting across from Kyle at a ranger’s desk. He hadn’t said a word since they left the clearing and he wouldn’t look at anyone. He still shook.

When the rangers were finished with the men, Dad sat down next to her. She offered him the remaining cocoa. It was no longer hot, but he cupped it in his hands and stared into the opaque liquid.

“I’m sorry,” he said with his eyes closed. “I’m so, so, sorry, Will. I am so sorry. I just.” He slumped over the cup.

She hugged him. He leaned into her and let go. She pulled him tighter and he was so small. She didn’t know what to say other than, “It’s okay.” And even though that wasn’t really right, it felt like a very small promise that it would be, one day.

mm

Bernard M. Cox

Bernard M. Cox is a graduate of 2015 Class of Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and received an MFA Creative Writing from Roosevelt University.

Bernie has taught fiction writing, screenwriting, literature, and composition; curated FeedBack, an experimental music concert series; ran a staged reading series for screenwriters; served as Assistant Artistic Director for the Tamale Hut Café Reading Series in North Riverside, IL; served on the Board of Directors of the University City Arts League in Philadelphia; and recently worked as a volunteer at the Lambda Archives of San Diego.

Five on the Fifth, A cappella Zoo, Blood and Lullabies, Collective Fallout, Crack the Spine, and Up the Staircase Quarterly. Visit www.bernardmcox.com or @bernardmcox on Twitter.

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