It had been quite a while since we had escaped The Dragon’s Teeth. That victory was only marred slightly by the fact that they had obviously let us go. During that last few moments, a stray round had hit my hand. I don’t know how it had happened, I just know that right at the moment I had let go of a flashbang, a sudden pain, like a bee sting, began in my hand. When Sunny had gone to look at my hand, there was a small hole straight through it.
Nathan and I were down in the hold. The idea was that we were supposed to pretend to be a Korean fishing boat. Nari and Sunny were actually Korean, and if you didn’t look too closely, John could pass for one with his black hair.
Nathan could keep himself busy, seeing as he could use both hands. He was using his relative health productively, counting all the ammo we had left and cleaning our guns. I envied him. All I could do was sit and think. Invariably, that would bring me back to the past.
The incident my mind wandered to was back in 2013. Back when I was a Junior. The previous week, we had just won the state finals for the first time in our school’s history. The next day, a Saturday, the Superintendent had found out I was a post-op transsexual because some piece of shit on the other team was a sore loser with a computer and enough skill with it to do some digging. The next day, she held a meeting with my high school’s principal and the school board. During that time, they decided to remove me from the team and ban me from the boy’s bathroom.
To make it even worse, no one had contacted me about this until after the decision was made. I remember hearing grandpa shouting through the phone at the person who called to hand down the decision. He was the one who then told me. After seeing my face fall, he said, “Don’t worry, son. We’re going to fight this.”
However, that wasn’t the incident I remembered specifically. That Friday, I was waiting after school to talk to Chad, one of my friends on the football team. Of all my former teammates, he was the only one who hadn’t spoken up for me. He hadn’t denounced me either, but his silence still hurt.
Eventually, he walked out of the school, talking on his cell phone. “…Yeah, Dad… same place as always.”
I waited until he had hung up before I asked, “Why?” Chad jumped and turned around. I continued. “Why didn’t you speak up for me? You know me.”
Chad stared at me for a while, then finally asked, “Do I, man?” I recoiled, and Chad shook his head. “I’m sorry. Listen, I don’t know shit about trans people or people in general. I just catch a ball and run with it. I’m not even that good at that. But I thought you were… y’know, normal. It’s just weird for me that the star quarterback who bought us all beer after the game was over used to be a chick.” He then shot me a look. “I’m also weirded out by the fact you didn’t tell anyone.”
I considered this. Finally I said, “Do you want to know what happened the last time I told someone?”
Chad nodded. “Sure,” he said.
“Well,” I began, “there was this girl I really liked in my last school. I actually managed to work up the nerve to ask her out. I did and I…”
“Wait,” Chad said, interrupting, “you actually like chicks? I thought you were gay like Derek.”
“First off,” I said rolling my eyes, “Derek’s not gay, dude. That stopped being funny long ago. Second, I want a girl I can admit I’m trans to without her breaking up with me and posting that I’m trans on the internet.”
“She outed you?” Chad asked. “What a fucking bitch.”
“Yeah,” I said. For once, I could actually say it out loud. It felt good. “And I told her what would happen! To top it off, she found out by looking in my diary while I was in the bathroom.”
“Fuck, man,” Chad said. “That’s bullshit.” He paused. “I wouldn’t have said anything, you know.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I just… I’ve just been outed too many times before to trust anyone like that, y’know?”
“Where does she go?” Chad asked.
“Nowhere you’d know,” I said. I shook my head. “I should have known she’d do something like that. She was kind of school famous for outing this bisexual girl from California with famously homophobic parents. But she was hot, she liked football, and was really good at hiding her bitchiness.”
After a few minutes of talking about girls, we saw Chad’s dad in the distance. “Listen,” Chad said to me, “I got your back… but next time, tell me, ok?”
“Well,” Nate said, chuckling in relief, “It looks like we brought the right amount of ammo. We almost ran out!”
I agreed blandly, and went back to applying pressure to my wound. It was all the entertainment I had at the moment.
Nathan “Killer” Jacobs is kind of an odd guy. Some people are a little scared of him. I used to think that was just because a few of his friends decided to talk him up to save his life. After all, despite getting the first kill of Hell Semester, he was probably one of the least skilled people there.
After working with him on this Korean mission and another one where we’d saved Nowhere Island University from Nazis from space (both of which had, in my opinion, gone horribly wrong,) I’d gained a healthy respect for him. He was a naturally gifted point man and had an intense focus, especially when under pressure or angry. I could see why people were afraid of him. Still, while I have a healthy respect for his skills, he isn’t exactly Ulfric Trollbjorn or President Newton-Howell.
More important than any of that, he had been with me through some of the worst moments in my post-highschool life. After fighting the Grenzefrontier, he had been one of the first people I met who had expressed sympathy for losing my entire team. During this current crap, he, John, and Sunny had probably saved my life dozens of times. Remembering Chad, I owed it to be honest with him.
“Hey, Killer…” I finally said. “I need to tell you something. I feel like I haven’t been completely straight with you.” I suddenly realized that he might assume I was gay, like a lot of other people did. For some reason, I found that amusing, despite how unfunny it was. It was probably the stress of the past few days.
“Ok…” Nate said. Maybe it was just me, but he seemed a little on edge.
“So,” I said, taking a deep breath and began. “Around seventeen years ago, there was this little boy living with his parents. The problem was, this little boy had a girl’s body. Now, people react very strange when trans people show up, and usually in a bad way. The little boy’s parents reacted… very poorly. Of course, they hadn’t been very good parents to start out with. I don’t want to get into too much detail, but they were pretty much…”
I suddenly noticed Nate’s face. “You already figured out that little girl was me, right?” I asked flatly. I suppose it wasn’t hard. After all, May had almost blabbed it out when I had to pretend to take her hostage. Plus, I was deliberately hinting at this.
“Well, yeah,” he said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. I guess, what with the hints I had been giving off, it kind of was. He wryly added, “But if you want, you can keep pretending you’re talking about someone else and I can pretend to be surprised at the big reveal.”
“Fuck that,” I said, “I’m done pretending. That’s the thing I hate most of all. When you’re a kid, all these little morality books constantly tell you how bad lying is. Then, if you’re trans and realize something is wrong, they force you to lie. Your teachers, your parents… hell, even people you don’t even know keep telling you that you’re wrong.”
The worst part is that they’re the assholes who’re wrong. Superintendent Melissa Thatcher was one of those people.
“I’m sorry,” she said, in a voice that was supposed to be kind and patient, “but we can’t accommodate you in this way. Sexual assault is a real problem, and if we give you the right to go into whichever bathroom you choose because you feel like a man instead of a woman, what rules are there to stop the boys in the schools from going into a bathroom by claiming they feel like a woman? Surely, you can understand.”
I had never met Mrs. Thatcher before and I had never set foot in town hall, either, but I had heard that patronizing garbage before. The way she had said “Sexual assault is a real problem,” in fact, was a good indicator of how misinformed she was. First off, she had implied that the problems facing trans youth, such as being abandoned, harassed, and denied medical care weren’t “real” problems. Secondly, she seemed to think that to be raped required you to be a cis-gendered woman. Yes, cis women do get raped, and that is a huge problem. But so do cis men and trans people.
However, the real problem was a certain flaw in her logic. “Mrs. Thatcher,” I said as she looked down on me from the central plinth and while what felt like the entire town staring at me, “I appreciate that sexual assault is a very serious problem that disproportionately affects the most vulnerable among us. To solve this problem, you feel as if you should keep anyone with…” I hesitated, not sure how crass I should be. I settled with as scientific and polite as possible. “…male genitalia out of the women’s bathrooms and locker rooms. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” Mrs. Thatcher said. “Boys should be in the boy’s locker room and girls should be in the girl’s locker room. I would have thought that obvious.”
“The problem with that is,” I said, “I am a straight man in every sense of the word.”
“But your birth certificate says you’re female,” Mrs. Thatcher said.
“I know what it says,” I said impatiently. “I know that my name and gender there don’t match what it says on my enrollment form. That’s because my physical gender is now male. I am a straight man, in both a physical and mental sense. If you are willing, I can call upon several doctors and psychologists to testify. Or I could drop my pants.” There was a mixture of aggrieved muttering, curious murmurs, and barely stifled laughter.
“Miss Rockford,” Mrs. Thatcher said, “You lied on your enrollment form. You lied to your classmates. Most importantly, I think you might even be lying to yourself. You are already on very thin ice. I would suggest that you act with civility.”
“Mrs. Thatcher,” I said, “I am a man. I may have had to have had some gene therapy in order to physically be one, but I am a man.” The audience muttered amongst themselves, but I continued on. “Until recently, I’ve also been a coward. Every time my birth gender has been discovered, I’ve changed schools because I couldn’t deal with being dragged out in front of terrified parents who believed I was the boogeyman.
“Today, I’m going to stop being a coward and stand up for myself. I’m not give up my rights as a man because of what some scumbags might have done or might do. In fact, I’d be surprised if any rapist or peeping tom goes to the lengths of pretending to be trans just to enter a bathroom.” I sighed. “But that’s just my take on it. If you’ll turn to page forty-five of the handout you’ve been given, you’ll be able to see some of the doctor’s testimony I have been talking about.”
I suddenly realized I had been staring at the wall of the boat for several seconds. “Anyway,” I said, shaking my head to clear it, “where was I?”
“Your parents were pretty much something,” Nathan said. “I didn’t find out what.” He had been watching me the entire time. He has a pretty good poker face, I’ll give him that. Figuring out what he’s thinking can be more trouble than it should be.
“Oh,” I said, “basically, if you can think about generic child abuser stereotypes, then you’ll get a pretty good idea of what they are.” I hadn’t realized I had even mentioned them. Thanks to those two, I’m still surprised that people assume parents know what’s best for their kids. “They aren’t worth bothering about.” It wasn’t exactly true. More like it was better I didn’t think about them.
When I was little, even before I came out to my parents, I knew enough to watch out for when my dad was drunk. Mom was always pretty bad, always talking about how expensive it was to keep me around and how difficult I was, but she wasn’t violent, and there were ways to get her to stop, especially in public. Dad, however, wouldn’t stop. He made up for it by never going after me directly. I had to either be in his sight when he was drunk or mess up.
On my seventh birthday, I messed up while he was drunk. My dad was, as usual for a Friday, drinking and playing poker. This time, he had invited over his boss and some of his nicer co-workers instead of the regular bunch. That may have saved my life.
As soon as I had smelled the alcohol, I knew I needed to get out. He had gotten out one of the bottles of hard liquor that he claimed was for “important people” but often got drank when his favorite bar was closed or his drinking buddies canceled.
I could hear shouting from downstairs, but I ignored it. It rarely concerned me. Then I heard my dad marching up the stairs, obviously angry. When he slammed the door open, he shouted, “KAREN!”
“Y…yes dad?” I asked, now incredibly frightened. Even with the gene therapy and twelve years of growth, my dad is probably still bigger than I am. Of course, the odds are somewhat evened by my training now, but back then, he towered over me.
He grabbed me by my shirt and lifted me off my shirt. When he had brought me up to his face, he yelled, “LISTEN HERE, YOU LITTLE FAGGOT, WHEN YOUR MOTHER ISN’T HERE, IT’S YOUR JOB TO GET DRINKS!”
Then he did something I will never forget. He threw me across the room. Eleven years later, I would get flashbacks when I watched Ulfric Trollbjorn do the same thing countless times. My dad didn’t throw very, but the brief moment I was airborne was the scariest of my entire life. I fell on my arm. In the split second before my head hit the wall, causing me to lose consciousness, I could hear it break.
When I came to, I saw my dad’s boss bent over me. “Karen,” he asked, his face blurry, yet concerned, “are you ok?”
“My chest hurts…” I wheezed. I then blacked out again.
“Anyway,” I said, “the day my grandad came to take me away from them was the happiest day of my life.” I still remember the first time I’d met him. It was a few days after I’d woken up in the hospital. I heard him before I saw him, the tap of his cane echoing on the tile floor, and his gruff voice shouting at hospital staff. He’d come limping into my ward with my dad’s boss like he was the cavalry.
I remember the first thing he said. “Karen,” he said, his eyes brimming with tears, “I am so sorry. I should’ve been there for you.
Nate broke me out of my reverie. “How did that happen?” he asked.
I laughed. “I honestly didn’t know I had a grandfather,” I said. “But he knew all about me. I didn’t find out about him until I was seven. Apparently, old man Kyle Chapman thought my dad was trouble and was keeping an eye on him. When my dad gave me a couple broken ribs for my birthday, he filed for custody of me. Apart from the people I came in with and my football team, he was the only person who I had ever told I was trans after the gene therapy.”
“Wait,” Nathan asked, “gene therapy? I thought gender reassignment was a surgical procedure.”
“Normally it is,” I admitted, “but my grandad was a former teacher at NIU. He knew a guy back there who could give me the full treatment. Genetically, I’m a completely different person from Karen Rockford.”
I actually remembered the conversation before the first round of gene therapy. “Are you sure about this, son?” Grandpa asked as we walked into the clinic, his cane tap-tapping on the ground. I had only known him for a little over a year at that point, but I had learned that I was the only person he slowed down for. “Because… what’s about to happen to you isn’t like flipping a switch. It’ll take a long time, two to three years, in fact, and it might not even work the way you and that da… darned egghead want it to. It also’s never been done on a human being before, which scares the heck outta me. If you have any doubts…”
I looked up at him. “Grandpa,” I said earnestly. “I’ve never been more sure about anything in my entire life. This is what I want.”
Grandpa nodded. “I hope you’re right, Kyle.” I warmed inside. Every time anyone called me that, I felt validated. With grandpa, it was even better. “I do suppose you know who you are better than anyone else.”
The rest of the conversation between Nate and me was much better than I expected. I got the sense that he had known, or at least suspected for some time, but was cool with how long it had taken for me to come out to him. Eventually, we trailed off and the conversation ended.
As the silence continued, I realized that for some reason, I still had a bad feeling, like something was going to happen soon. I sighed. Things had been going wrong recently. All my friends on the football team who had followed me into Nowhere Island University were dead. So were two people who had gone on this mission. Ok, Jeong might be alive, but he had been burned to a crisp. The reality of the situation was probably that he was dead.
And the damndest thing? Grandpa had warned me about it. After midterms in senior year, Professor Krieger had come to talk with us. During that time, he had told me honestly what the risks would be, and what the cost of failure could be. While Professor Kreiger was still there, my Grandpa just listened politely. When Kreiger was done, Grandpa showed him out.
As we watched Krieger’s Land Rover drive away, Grandpa said, “If you want my advice, I wouldn’t join him.”
“Grandpa,” I said, “I respect you, but… I can’t just sit this out. It’s too big. Besides, when you were my age…”
“I was drafted.” Grandpa said. “I may have won a few medals, but none of those goddamn hunks of metal were worth watching my buddies get killed. The only reason I stayed in the army was because I had no idea what to do with myself when I was through. By the time that Newton-Howell bastard started up NIU, your Grandmother had left, and she’d taken your mom and your uncles with you because I was such a mess.”
He turned to look me in the eye. “Listen, son,” he said, almost pleadingly. “Everything I’ve done since I’ve met you, I’ve done so you wouldn’t end up like me.”
Needless to say, I didn’t listen to him. Now, five of my friends who had stood by me and tirelessly worked to get me back in school were dead. All because we wanted to be heroes.
No, that was wrong. It was because I had wanted to be a hero that my friends were dead. It wasn’t their fault my friends had decided to trust me. I had led them to victory before. I was the one who should have realized football was completely different from spying. If I had, the only thing that probably would have changed would be that my friends would still be alive. NIU would still have stopped the Nazis, and I would have had a chance at that normal life I’d always wanted.
This kind of guilt, needless to say, is hard to live with. However, based on what my gut was telling me, I might not have to live with it much longer.
I shook my head. No. I wasn’t going to die this close to safety. Not when I had this much to atone for. Besides, I was being irrational. We’d left North Korea. We were safe.