Somewhere far away, someone made a call, someone in power said yes to violence, and our friends would never get to see our friends say yes to love.
hey Cal! Moving the start time to 11, hope you get this!
It didn’t work, of course, but I did learn about backpacking. I would go with the other women and our Mary Oliver poems and our carefully-curated Leslie Feinberg selections on trips that wore me to the bone and built me back again as tendon and quadricep. I learned to carry my backpack and my body as one, a single unit taking step after step after step until I couldn’t think at all, which didn’t make me not-miserable. When I left the Land a year later, tearful and a certified Wilderness First Responder, I had to make some other change. I went to a doctor and got hormones. I went from door to door asking for somewhere new to stay.
Joyce and Tom had dated for the hottest of minutes before she dated Annika, before she decided that no, really, she was in fact done with men. But when I appeared back at her door in her new town, all my belongings in a backpack and my only net-worth my ability to splint an ankle and whatever my Honda CRV cost, Joyce called up Tom and he said sure, why not, he wanted to save money on rent and his boyfriend had just moved south to a city where one of my old exes had also moved, which would later be completely destroyed, though we didn’t know it at the time.
“I owe you.” I sat in Joyce’s house in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t really the middle of nowhere, but I wasn’t feeling kindly towards the town at the time. It wasn’t our city, it wasn’t where we’d met, where we’d met Annika, where we’d met everyone who mattered. It was just some place between the dry eastern plateau and the lush mountains that separated me from my new home on the coast. It smelled like pine and sand. “I owe you in a big way, after everything.”
Joyce shrugged it off. “I only want to help the people I love.”
I didn’t ask her why she had dumped me in the first place, forcing me to leave an apartment I couldn’t have afforded on my own, then, though I could have. I suspected it was because of my new face, the one that was changing on the medication to be more what it might always have been underneath. I wondered if she’d seen it before, known that I was too much like Tom for her comfort. I wondered if she’d moved to the middle of nowhere to escape that, all her lovers fluctuating in and out of themselves. “I still owe you,” I said. And then I said, “I’m thinking about top surgery.”
She looked at me for a long time. I couldn’t tell if it was excitement or concern. She was sitting in a chair that hadn’t been in the old apartment. All of the furniture in her house was new, from the big box easy-assemble place that had gotten popular in the East and made its way slowly over, infecting the living rooms of all my friends. I missed our thrifted loveseats, our milk-carton coffee tables. “That’s a big thought, Cal.”
“Yeah.” What else was there to say?
Very quietly, with her lopsided smile, she said, “I’m thinking a big thought, too.”
“I’m thinking about proposing to Annika.”
That was the last thing I needed to hear, but I knew what I needed to say. I looked out the window at the suburb that spread out to a state park. Annika and Joyce could be happy here. Just because I wasn’t happy anywhere didn’t mean I should spoil it for them. So I said, “That is a big thought, Joyce.”
And I smiled the whole while until Tom arrived, until I was settled into my new beach-view room, until I was secure at a job, until I could no longer hold it back, and finally, at the fish market, burst into tears that fell until I was empty of everything, even the hurt.
When I did get the invitation to the wedding, six months before the bombs, I said yes immediately. Of course I did.
Will going out into the woods and partaking in nature cure my dysphoria this time? Will the disruption of the fundamental fabric of the world finally reveal transition merely as selfish self-loathing? Will the detonation of 10k tons of nuclear weaponry have made me a woman again, and happy to be so? I asked myself these things as I tied my shoes. I had asked myself these questions over and over, every time I went into the forest. The answer was usually the same. Still, like a grocery list, I had to double-check. Phone, keys, wallet, fundamental sense of self?
Now, I followed the path of the bay’s tributary, a mile south of the old highway, steady towards the East with no great turmoil. There were still trees, there were still birds. Somewhere in there, in the mountains in my view, I knew, there would be a ring of lifeless ground. I would have to move fast, move quiet, and keep moving. That was one decision already made for me.
In my backpack I had a suit, my binders, extra underclothes, and everything I had stolen from an old job. After the blast, I had been press-ganged into working a five-week temp shift at an iodine-pill factory in a facility that used to make cheese. The officials in their hazmat suits rounded up everyone who wasn’t essential to my city’s operation and loaded us on a bus. When you work for a factory whose security concerns are primarily about people stealing from outside, there’s surprisingly less attention to people stealing inside. I pocketed what I knew I might one-day need to survive, which included two bottles of iodine, a personal radiation detector, and a particulate respirator with three clean filters, and then when the supplies ran out and the factory shut down, I walked home. I had walked everywhere before the bombs; it was one of the ways in which my life hadn’t changed. I still hated my breasts. I still wanted a pet chinchilla but knew I would never be able to afford one, and I still walked everywhere I could, even through the forests.
Here is what is true about the woods: You won’t be the same person you were before you went into them. Here is what is true about the woods that people who love the woods and know the woods won’t tell you: This is true of everywhere you go. As a child, I was taken by bus to an art museum and I was not the same child when I left. As a teenager, I was driven by my parents to the Grand Canyon and I was not the same teenager when I left. Before I set out for the wedding, I stopped at a market I’d never been to. I bought a pound of shrimp. I left that place, a perfectly ordinary corner shop. I was not the same person I’d been before I went in.
Every new place leaves you a new person, every vision of beauty leaves you a person with a vision of beauty you hadn’t previously known. I used to want beauty to change me. I wanted so badly to believe that it could. The forest had worked for some women I knew—they had walked hidden trails with their shirts off and been restored, re-connected to their Whole Bodies and realized that, in fact, what they needed was freedom to be themselves. I didn’t begrudge them their hard-won victories, but my own breasts ached like bruises when I tried to center myself, even surrounded by the freedom of the natural world.
Here is what is true about the woods: You won’t be the same person you were before you went into them.
It was exhausting. I hiked and I ached. I made my way through abandoned towns where vines had overtaken barns and post offices, empty windows given over to nature. I crossed streams that stank of decay and ran with a thick vomit of algae and dead birds. I made my way over impromptu mountains, formed by boulders that had been flung up like jacks in the wake of the pressure shifts. I walked, head high, under a bright blue sky which was shot through with clouds so high up they stretched long and thin. Those are god’s fingers, my grandfather used to say, He holds the whole world in his grasp. At night I walked slowly, with my hands out on either side of me as though I could keep myself in a straight line, using the trees like walls.
Broken trees, cold ash, buildings flattened like cereal boxes in the recycling bin. I moved through the edge of the thermal zone without blinking, without looking down, without giving in to the temptation to lift the branches scattered over the shapes that might well have been bodies.
Once, years ago, I’d seen a dog dead on the side of the highway. I hadn’t wanted to see it, but the sight of it, its soft brown corpse, open mouth, blood-crusted stomach, seared something inside of me. I became obsessed with confirming or denying the shape of roadkill. It made me a real danger on the road, actually, and in some ways I was thankful that my car had been toasted by the EMP effects. Pressed for time, I couldn’t stop. A hand, if it was a hand, waved at me as I passed by. Above me, a hawk circled, dove. Somewhere outside my vision, something else that had survived was now dead. Something else that had survived was still surviving. I avoided the epicenter, didn’t look too hard at anything but the trees in the distance, standing tall and green the way trees stood through everything. Trees had no concept of death, and anyway, there was nothing wrong with mortality except for those who hadn’t succumbed to it yet.
There were people I had intended to tell about my big thought, people I wanted to test the waters with, people whose opinions I respected and whose comfort I wanted, who wouldn’t be at Joyce and Annika’s wedding. During my time at the factory, I met all kinds of displaced people who were falling apart. They might have been all right, after everything, except that they had survived what everyone who could have helped them hadn’t. So all of us who had been bussed in from all the little seaside towns all along the shore did our best, but it wasn’t the same. I wanted to say that I understood, but I knew I didn’t, really. I wanted to talk to my dead friends about if I should get top surgery, and the displaced people wanted to talk to their families about the torn up bodies, the flames, the desolation. Still, I wanted to say, I understood. Anyone could understand. Somewhere far away, someone made a call, someone authorized the drop, and someone was gone. Blinked out of existence. Someone in power said yes to violence, and our friends would never get to see our friends say yes to love.
By the tenth day, I realized I was ahead of schedule and, also, that I hadn’t slept more than three hours a night in the last nine nights. I was on the ridgeline by an abandoned highway that would eventually slope down to Joyce and Annika. I sat on a flat rock and took off my respirator. The dark air was cool and moist, the way it always was at the end of summer before the cold set in. The most dangerous places were behind me. I took off my shirt and looked at the skin of my arms. No discoloration, peeling, bruising. I tried very intentionally not to look at my breasts but couldn’t help myself. I was the only person for as far as I could see. I put my shirt back on, then my respirator, and closed my eyes.
I thought the sounds that woke me were dogs. Dogs, feral packs of them, were common on the outskirts of civilizations. All over my hometown posters had gone up about them: Do Not Interact! Do Not Feed! If a dog approaches you, attempt to frighten it away. Do Not Touch! I didn’t want to be slobbered on, or worse, by a bunch of radioactive dogs, so I sat up immediately, waving my arms. “Hey! Hey!” I yelled, blinking sleep out of my eyes, adjusting to the sun that was burning off the fog around us, “Get away! Hey!”
They were not dogs, though. They were wolves. I recognized their silhouettes instinctively. On the Land, there had been wolves, too. The women I lived with had built fences to keep them from the chickens and, generally, we lived peacefully. All women are connected to wolves, my girlfriend told me. I don’t know if that was true, but I know there was a pack that considered the far end of the Land part of its territory.
The wolves on the ridge, now, didn’t seem particularly connected with me. They yapped to each other, startled. They were immense and speckled grey and brown, roaming just below my rock. My limbs felt cold, my heart beat furiously in my stomach. They were too big, too wild. “Hey,” I called out again. There were five of them. They talked amongst each other, walking slowly, looking at me with something like curiosity. One of them had a muzzle spotted with red algae, one of them had a bloodied wound on its back leg.
It felt like forever that they sniffed around my perch. I frantically tried to identify what they could be smelling. My granola bars? My dehydrated apples? My shelf-stable soup? I hadn’t packed many snacks I thought would be appealing to animals. Was it the Doritos? My limbs were still numb. If I actually did die, mauled to death, would that prove Tom right? Or would it prove Tom right and be badass? The alternative, that I would be accepted into their pack and run free, free of human constraints, seemed unlikely.
I was the only person for as far as I could see.
“Hey, you’ve gotta get out of here. I need to keep walking, okay?” I raised my voice, then I raised my detector. They saw the motion, the plastic, and they vaulted. It was a shift so sudden that my body seized in fear. I was gripping the device for dear life, like the clicking noise it made could protect me. The wolves ran together, away from me, fish in a school, cutting a line through the branches. I realized they couldn’t tell the tool from a gun.
They had mistaken me, believed me dangerous. I sat and watched them go. I wasn’t dangerous. I wasn’t anything that could hurt them. I was a single human being on a rock. I’m just here, just me. And was it a cliché to say that that was the answer I needed? It wasn’t nature’s acceptance that affirmed my existence. It was my rejection. I understood, then, that I could have been anyone. I could be anyone. The forest didn’t care that I had breasts, didn’t care that I hated them, wouldn’t care if I didn’t have them. I could get top surgery and be seen as dangerous in society the same way that I hadn’t had top surgery and was seen as dangerous in the wild. I set down my weapon, my not-gun, and laughed.
I was late to the wedding. Not too late, to the point where I missed the vows, just late enough to be dramatic, which Annika would ask me later if I had planned, but of course I hadn’t. I had simply gotten held up a bit by the shocked town guards who hadn’t anticipated anyone would come through the forest. They stood at attention at their little toll booth with their automatic rifles and stared at me with open mouths.
“Where did you come from?” one of them asked. She was young, probably would have been in college if college was still an option for anyone out of high school. But able-bodied young people, which I guess included myself when I thought about the way I’d been shoved onto a bus and forced to sleep in a camp with a hundred other people outside a factory, were easy stand-ins for professionals.
“I walked from the beach.” I took off my ventilator mask and pointed back behind me. “Can I get de-con’d? I have a wedding to go to.”
The other guard, an older man with the kind of disinterested expression that career TSA agents always had, shrugged. “Show us your paperwork and then follow Maddison.”
I did. I expected a hassle—that X in my gender box, after all—but the man just looked at my driver’s license, then at me, then noted something in a book in his booth. Maddison escorted me to the de-con cube, the same kind as the factory up north had made us use. “Thanks,” I said, and waited for her to leave, but she didn’t.
“I’m gonna need your clothes.” She pointed at my shirt. “If you came from the forest . . . ”
“Well, I didn’t go through the super dangerous part.” I held up my device. “See, I knew what I was doing.”
“I’m still gonna need your clothes.” She shrugged. Her rifle slid on her shoulder. She had half an undercut and the very faint remains of red dye in her hair. Maybe these weren’t actually signals that I could trust her, but I had to take a chance. No time for modesty. I stripped and handed her my clothes, walked naked into the decontamination showers. When I emerged on the other side, she handed me a new duffle bag. “Your old pack was busted.” She looked me in the eyes before I pulled my binder on, then the rest of my clothes. “We have a surplus, so . . . ”
“Thanks.” I smiled at her. She smiled back, but I recognized her exhaustion. After the blast, all the young women with any kind of emergency training, from nursing students to underpaid parking garage security attendants, were recruited to find wounded survivors. They went with dogs; they came back alone. They became joyless. How could they be anything but? “I’m going to a wedding. There’s going to be a reception at a brewery. If you get off with time to spare, come by?”
“Your friends won’t be upset?”
“Are you gay? If you’re gay, they won’t be upset. I’m saying gay, like, generally.” I made a hand motion to ensure she knew the definition was broad.
She laughed, and it sounded real. “Okay. If I’m off, sure.” Then she gestured to the highway that led into town. It was still paved and I could see bikers carting vegetables behind them, turning the curve towards downtown. “Have a good time.”
The ceremony was, as planned, at the Overland Trail trailhead. There were fewer people than the old Facebook invite had said there would be. I counted the absences, the lack of smiling, surprised faces. Most of the dead were in the city far south of us, where everyone like us eventually went, it had seemed. I took my place amidst old friends. They whispered in excitement and I held their hands through the vows in which two people I had loved, still loved, made the promise of a lifetime together. The sky above was clear and blue and stretched on forever.
After the ceremony, I couldn’t help myself. I barreled past everyone else I was excited to see directly to the brides. “Annika, Joyce! Hi!” I squeezed their hands, looked into their eyes. They were beaming with excitement and I was beaming with joy. We were two mirrors reflecting the light of a bulb back at each other.
“Cal!” Annika wrapped her arms around me. She smelled like dirt and lavender, which was the color of her suit. “Cal, I can’t believe you made it!”
Joyce patted our backs, her hands trembling. Around the train of her enormous silver dress, the rest of the party was gathering. “How on Earth?”
“Well, I walked for a very long time but it was faster than driving and my car is fucked up, anyway. And I saw a wolf! I saw lots of wolves, actually, and lots of birds. And I’m going to get top surgery! And I’m so glad to see you.” The words came out of my mouth all jumbled over each other like water over a fall, but it didn’t matter. They were all true.
We were two mirrors reflecting the light of a bulb back at each other.
“Oh my god,” Annika burst into tears, still beaming, “Cal, congratulations!”
“You made it, though,” Joyce said, her whole arms waving in excitement now. Behind her, someone was laughing, someone was crying, someone was talking excitedly but I couldn’t hear them over the sound of my own heartbeat. “You made it, I’m so glad.”
I burst into tears. Annika wiped my face with the back of her hand. I thought of the wolves, of the Land, of how angry I had been for so long and how I could no longer be angry simply because I knew what I wanted. I wept openly with Joyce and Annika because they, too, knew what they wanted. It was deceptively difficult to know.
Annika and Joyce held me, and I held them, and our friends who had survived held us and we held them in return and we held our friends who hadn’t survived, too, because our bodies were strong enough and our hearts were big enough to hold them.
Brendan Williams-Childs is a Wyomingite, living elsewhere. His creative work has previously appeared in Nat. Brut, the Colorado Review, and anthologies including The Best American Mystery & Suspense 2022 and Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy from Transgender Authors.