The last thing Birch’s mother said to him before his disownment was that she couldn’t support his choices, and so she couldn’t have him living in her home. Not that he chose any of them, but that didn’t matter; his mother was set in her ways. He supposed he’d rather have been disowned than continue to be a part of that family, anyway, but there were some things he’d enjoyed about being at home. “If you’re going to continue on this path”, she’d said, her eyes wide and shining with fake tears, “your father and I cannot support you.”
He always knew that ending was a possibility, growing up with a family like his. They just never talked about it until there was no other way to ignore it. He was always the kid they regretted the most; everyone all knew that even if no one ever said it.
Grace is on the floor again. Cujo sits by her side, as he always does, nuzzling his nose into her arm. He hasn’t been around long, but Birch knows everyone feel so much better now about leaving Grace home by herself. Still, it’s not like that ever really happens, because he never leaves.
“Gracie,” he says, and kneels at her side. “Are you okay?” She says he’s supposed to keep calm, that he isn’t needed as much now they have a dog. “Good boy, Cujo.” Grace seizes over and over again; it’s not so scary anymore, but it still isn’t pleasant.
“Hmm?” She stops, looks around, always disoriented after these ordeals. She doesn’t speak much, just pets the dog softly and wistfully. “I’m okay.”
Her meds have fallen from the nightstand; Birch picks them up. “Tired?” Cujo pants; Grace allows Birch to help her up. “You should take it easy for a while, maybe take a nap.” Sometimes he doesn’t quite know where to draw the line when it comes to helping Grace. She’s his best friend, but even Birch can piss her off sometimes.
Having accompanied his human to the couch for a lie-down, Cujo settles into his dog bed .”Thanks,” says Grace, taking her pill bottle, which is filled with a combination of different medications. She isn’t the Grace Birch remembers from junior high, or even from high school, but that’s bound to happen. She looks at him for several moments, her eyes unfocused, and then she lapses into sleep.
The night of the accident, Grace had gone to a party with her sister, Bronte. Birch wasn’t there. If he had been, he would have told Grace not to get in the car with a drunk driver. Then she wouldn’t’ve been there when Bronte crashed the car, and she wouldn’t’ve ended up the way she did.
Being homeless sucked. Being homeless in the coldest state in America? Now that was a whole other level of shitty. Birch spent most of the time hiding inside the ferry terminal or the airport. If it weren’t for Grace, he’d still be out there, and probably would’ve froze to death.
It’s snowing. Snowfalls this time of year rarely last. As Grace nods off on the couch, Cujo stands by the door of the house, wagging his tail to go outside. Despite being a service dog, he gets a lot of downtime. “C’mon.” His equipment is easy to remove, but takes a while to get onto him. “Let’s go play outside while Gracie’s asleep.” When Birch opens the door, he bursts outside.
Birch’s younger brother used to say he wished he looked like him. He had no idea what he was talking about. Birch wishes he looked like everyone else.
He takes Cujo down the road on his leash. It’s bizarre how many people approach to pet him without asking first, especially when he’s working. Grace hasn’t always had a service dog. She’s only been disabled for six months, after all. It’s sunny, which means Birch can’t leave the house without his sunhat and glasses. Even on the days when the sun barely pokes through the clouds, he can’t be exposed. He’s gotten used to it by now, he supposes, but it was hard when he was younger, when his parents still gave a damn if he survived or not. Most of the time he likes looking different.
In eighth grade, Birch was paired with Grace for a group project in social studies. That was how they met, although they’d really hated each other in the beginning. He thought she was a know-it-all. She thought he was a slacker. Birch had even begged the teacher to let him change partners, because Grace was infuriating, and honestly he wasn’t sure how they made it through that experience without killing each other. Somehow, they became friends. Maybe it was when she stood up to a guy who was harassing him after he was outed. Yeah, he was outed. In junior high. In front of the whole class. It was a wonder he ever went back to school after that.
“Excuse me, could we pet your dog?”
Birch is approached by an Inuit woman and her daughter, bunched up in parkas despite it being sunny. Normally, he’d say no; you’re not supposed to pet a service dog. There are a lot of Inuit people here;
he’s even related to some. They mostly keep to themselves, hunting and fishing and whatnot.
Most of his face is covered. It always is when he goes out: only his eyes exposed. The woman and her daughter huddle close together. “Huh? I mean – sure. He’s friendly.” Cujo doesn’t get a lot of attention. When he gets pet, he pants and wags his tail. Growing up, Birch had had a dog named Slumber; well actually, he supposed she was more for his little sister. But he was the one who took her on the most walks.
His sister Bryony is eight years old and autistic. His parents have more kids than they know what to do with, and for some reason they’re all named after things in nature. What kind of name is Birch, anyway? He’s the oldest, which means he’s the one they fucked up most, and he’s also the one they disowned first. He’s sure there will be more after him.
Birch has always worn glasses: since he was born, basically. He’s not legally blind, but he’s pretty close. His glasses make him look bug-eyed, which people aren’t shy about pointing out.
“Come on, Cujo.” He tugs the dog’s leash, but he’s busy sniffing the snow. “Let’s go home and see if your mom is awake.” He never used to understand why people referred to their pets as children. His mom did it all the time when he was a kid. Of course, he never understood a lot of things when he was younger, and he still doesn’t. But he does understand that some people have no right to raise kids at all. People start a family, and they try so hard to mold their kids into whatever thing they want them to be, but they’re not clay, they don’t always fit into molds. Sometimes he thinks that’s why his parents have so many children. They fucked up the first one, and the next one, so eventually one has to turn out the way they want, right? What does he know; he’s not a parent. Maybe he will be, someday, but that won’t be for years.
There is something about living near the ocean. Birch can walk down to the sea-walk in five minutes and sit by the coast. It’s always so relaxing there, especially at night. When he was homeless he spent a lot of time down there, despite its lack of shelter; he just found it a good place to sit and think. When he wasn’t at the Glory Hall, there was also the library and random places of business he could sneak into. He always hated that, loitering. He’d have done anything to avoid it. After a while he started stealing things like food and clothes, because he had to live, and the Glory Hall only went so far. It did save his life, though.
The day he was kicked out of his house, he wandered for hours, until it was very dark. He doesn’t remember some of it, honestly. Eventually he hitched a ride from a stranger all the way to the homeless shelter, and they took good care of him there. Of course, everyone claims to care about a homeless
youth, but nobody does anything about the family that made them that way.
When he gets home, she’s in the kitchen baking, dancing carelessly to some of her favorite music. “You okay in here? Smells good.”
She smiles, taking a baking sheet out of the oven. Gracie’s always been a baker, ever since they became friends. “I made cookies! Chocolate chip; I know you love those.” He does. After taking a drink, Cujo curls back up in his bed in the corner of the living room. “Here,” says Grace, and holds a cookie out, “try one.”
Birch never had the best relationship with his sisters. Maybe they’re just too different, or maybe they’re just too young. Grace feels like his sister.
“Thanks.” Everything she bakes is delicious. He wishes he could bake like her.
. . . . . . . . . .
Snow didn’t always hate herself. Actually, back in the day she thought she was pretty cool. But things change, and people change most of all.
Being closeted at school is the worst. Junior high is hard enough without all of those added issues. Snow wishes her parents understood, but all they care about is Bryony. Sometimes she wishes she were like her so that she could get some attention too.
“Hi, everyone! It’s me, Snow.” She makes videos. She’s only twelve, but she already has lots of subscribers. Sometimes it helps to have someone like you on the Internet, it makes you feel more at home. Her best friend, Elise, walks home from school with her, her jacket pink and puffy. “I wanted to tell you guys about something that happened today.”
Elise holds her phone in a selfie stick, which makes it so much easier to film. Snow hates the way her voice sounds. More than that, she hates the way she looks, and the way she’s forced to dress, and pretty much everything else about herself. Her mom says she’s too young to be depressed, but her dad tries to understand sometimes. She thinks she’s going to end up like her brother, disowned and never coming to visit.
As they continue their walk home, Snow talks to the camera. It’s hard putting her life out there on the
Internet for everyone to see. It’s especially hard because she has to admit things to herself to admit them to other people, and sometimes she doesn’t even know the truth about herself. All her parents ever wanted was for her to be an obedient son who got good grades and had typical interests. To be honest, she thinks that’s exactly what they think of her. But she doesn’t want to be that anymore.
“Okay, so in my last video, I told you guys about some stuff that’s been going on at school. And well… yeah, I just wanted to say something else that happened that really upset me…” Elise and Snow edit the videos, but they’re not very good at it yet. Snow is not even allowed on YouTube at home. Her parents think the Internet is evil, so they lock the computer at night. Not even Lynx is allowed to use it, and he’s fifteen.
Elise waits for Snow to finish talking. She’s so girly: long hair and frilly pink shirts. Up the street from Snow’s house, she sighs and shuts off the recording. It’s too difficult. It’s like she’s hiding herself from the whole world and pretending to be someone else, and she can’t do it. Everyone knows her as this shy, studious boy who does what he’s told and stays out of trouble. That’s not who she is. But no one would understand if she told them the truth, especially not her religious parents. They think anything different is a sin. They think anyone who isn’t like them is an offender, and it’s not a thing they’ll change their minds about.
Elise stops in the sidewalk, touching Snow’s arm. “Are you okay?”
Snow thought Elise would be disgusted when she told her the truth. She thought Elise would hate her and refuse to be her friend anymore, and it was scary. She doesn’t want to be different. She wants people to be proud of her. She smiles, even though she’s not happy. “Yeah.” Elise lives down the street from Snow. “I just… don’t really feel like doing the video anymore.” It seems so easy to talk about things, but it’s not, not even to her best friend. She has a journal, but it doesn’t feel the same. She misses Birch, but her parents pretty much pretend he never existed.
“Okay.” After saying their goodbyes, Elise hugs Snow and walks down the street to her house. She’s known her since she was a kid. In a way, that makes all of this so much harder.
Snow’s mom is home when she arrives. She’s a freelance website designer, so she’s always home. Snow hates it. All her siblings are home too, which means it’s easy for her to sneak into her room without being noticed. At least, it is most days. Today, her mother calls to her as soon as she walks through the door. “Monty, come here.”
She’ll never understand Snow. She doesn’t even try. Snow puts her backpack down. “Yeah?” Her
mom’s makeshift office is in the living room, where she always has her laptop and phone. Snow’s baby brother Heron is asleep in his nursery; she can see him when she peeks through the crack in his door. She doesn’t know why her parents keep having kids. They can’t even take care of them properly.
Snow wants to come out. With her family, she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to.
Hyacinth is five years old. She sits at the kitchen table drawing a picture of her family. She always draws Snow looking like a girl.
Snow’s mom smiles at her, taking a break from her work. “How was school? Did you have a good day?” She asks each of them every day. The answer never changes.
Snow shrugs, sits next to her. “It was fine, I guess.” They aren’t close. She tries so hard, but she just doesn’t understand. “Do you need something? I have lots of homework to do.”
This year in school, Snow is going to learn about sexual health. Everyone has to be split up by gender and taught differently. Both her older siblings learnt it in eighth grade, so she knows she’s going to. She doesn’t want to, because nobody knows she’s a girl. Nobody will let her take the class with the girls. Elise said she’d tell Snow everything she learns, but Snow wants to be there. She knows it won’t make a difference either way, because even if she is a girl, she won’t develop into one. She’s already started going through puberty, and it makes her hate herself even more than she already did. Snow’s voice cracks every time she speaks, and she’s taller than all the other girls, and taking a shower is just…. she doesn’t know. It’s hard to take a shower without looking at yourself.
“I’ve been thinking.” Snow’s mom touches her hair. It’s only at Snow’s shoulders, but her mother complains about it all the time. “I have a hair appointment scheduled for myself tomorrow after work. I thought you could come along. Maybe get a haircut that’s a little more boyish?”
Snow was afraid of this. Her last haircut was eight months ago, and her mom made her shave the sides. After that she couldn’t look at herself without wanting to cry. “I don’t want a haircut.”
For a long time Snow never knew what this feeling was called. It was so confusing. She felt like all the other girls, but she didn’t look like them. Eventually she told the guidance counsellor at school about it, and she told her it was called transgender, and that nothing was wrong with her. But it’s still so terrifying, even if nobody knows the truth. Snow knows they’ll find out someday. Her brother Birch was outed to her parents by
a neighbor. Maybe the same thing will happen to her.
She looks surprised. “You don’t? Your hair is getting so long-”
“I like it like that.”
The baby is awake. He whimpers from his nursery; Snow’s mom gets up to tend to him. “Well, okay.” She glances at Snow, taking a moment to examine her haircut and outfit. When Heron begins to cry louder, she sighs. “Go and do your homework, Monty.”
Lynx is home. He and Snow share a room, because there aren’t enough in the house for them all to have their own. It’s expensive to live in the state, for one thing, Snow always hears people complaining about that. The older kids share a room, and the younger kids do. They have bunk beds, and Snow sleeps on the top because she’s younger. Snow never used to feel weird about sharing a room with her brother, but she does now, and she doesn’t like it. She never gets dressed in there. She never looks at herself when she does get dressed. If she explained how she was feeling to her brother, he’d probably understand. He was the first one to know that Birch is gay, and he never cared about that. The wall by Lynx’s bunk is covered with posters of bikini models. The wall by Snow’s bunk is bare and gray.
“Hey, Monty.” Lynx grins at Snow, for once looking away from his phone. “I’m going for a walk to the harbor in a little bit; want to come?” He looks like his dad. He has eyes that make him look harsh, but he’s alright. Snow doesn’t feel like going out. Every time she does, everyone just calls her sir or boy. She’d rather stay home in her room, by herself. She wants to tell Lynx the truth, but she’s scared.
Snow climbs the ladder to her bunk. She wishes she had an older sister. Maybe she’d let her borrow her bras and try on her clothes. Maybe she’d give her fashion advice. “No, thanks. I have lots of homework.” Snow doesn’t. Sometimes it’s easier to make excuses instead of telling the truth.
Lynx shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
Snow’s name isn’t Monty. It’s Snow. Her friends call her Snow, like the princess. She doesn’t feel like a princess, but she wants to.