From the author: Kellsey’s mother, long-dead from a terminal illness, only speaks to her in pre-recorded videos. But Kellsey’s mother speaks to Kevin, since she could never know that her child would one day transition. When Kellsey learns that her hormone treatments now make her susceptible to the same cancer that killed her mother—and that a new medical procedure can alter her internal gender identity—she must choose between becoming the son she never wanted to be or the daughter she may not survive as.
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When I was little, I didn't understand. I'd tap the icons on my tablet randomly, looking for her. Dad would have to help. "Mommy's right here," he'd say, pointing to the icon of the white bird. His warm hand folded over my tiny one, guiding my finger to the bird's neck. "See?"
Even when I was only three or four, there were so many unlocked videos. Mom sang the alphabet, she read paper books and flipped them around to show me the pictures, and she showed me the different kinds of leaves that she'd picked from the branches outside. She told me that living was fun but dying wasn't so scary, and that she loved me more than anything in the world.
She also called me her "little man" and said I was "handsome" instead of cute. And she told me to be a good boy, and not a good girl. Stuff like that drove me nuts. A five-year-old can't tell the difference between feeling betrayed and being angry, and I remember watching a video that Dad unlocked on the day I turned six, where Mom called me "the birthday boy." When I heard that, I threw my tablet into the wall and screamed.
Dad ran back into the room to calm me down. "She didn't know," he tried to explain, while I stomped my feet and cried. "She didn't know that we'd make a boy baby, but that you'd want to be a girl instead."
"I'm not a boy," I cried. I squeezed Momma Spots, my stuffed leopard, to my chest.
"I know, Kellsey."
"I'm going to grow up and be a lady."
"I know." Dad kissed my head and rubbed my arms. "Mommy just made a mistake. She still loves you."
I clenched Momma Spots. "Mommy's dead."
But my dad's a saint, and he just kept touching me and saying, "I know."
When I was eight, Dad married Tiffany. She's amazing and I love her, and if it weren't for the videos, I would've called her Mom from the beginning.
Tiffy was always the best. She let me put clips in her hair, she wore the jewelry I made for her, and the morning I quit ballet lessons, instead of being mad (like Dad was), she took me out to lunch to celebrate, saying, "Any time you make a choice to do what your heart wants, it's a victory." While Mom called me "a future lady killer" and "a Prince Charming," Tiffy took me to yard sales and thrift stores, explaining, "We all make ourselves out of the stuff that somebody else has rejected—the clothes other people don't want, the dreams other people don't have, and the lives other people can't handle. And there's nothing wrong with that, honey. You wouldn't believe what some people throw away."
Tiffy could talk back to me, and her arms were flabby and real, and when I hugged her, her warm breath whistled into my hair. She looked a lot like my mom, and sometimes, I closed my eyes and pretended that it was Mom who held me instead. And relief and guilt would bubble in the pit of my stomach like lava.
But Tiffy didn't give me special speeches on special days. She didn't know anything about the leaves of trees. And she wasn't always there when I needed her. But videos, you can pull up whenever you want. My mom could never ignore me.
Is that weird? That a person can be there for you—literally right there—and sometimes, it still isn't enough?
The full story of my mom actually came to me in pieces, as I got older and understood more. First I got that she was dead; then, a year later, that she had known she was going to die. A few years later, I learned what cancer was, and then after that, what infertility was and what people can do about it.
And now I'm starting to see just how much Dad loved Mom, and only now do I get how beautiful and terrible the whole thing is. What does it have to be like, to learn that your wife is going to die, and then have to watch while she makes videos for a baby that she really wants, but is never going to meet, and that might never even exist at all?
It's been over a decade, but Dad is still getting over it. He panics whenever I get sick.
And when Tiffy got sick, everything got turned upside-down.
Tiffy wasn't even the one to tell me. It was Dad. I came home from school one day, and he was just sitting at the kitchen table, hands on his lap, waiting. His tablet was in front of him, but the screen was dark and he wasn't touching it. "Kellsey."
He pulled his lower lip into his mouth, sucking on it so hard all the pink disappeared. "Tiffy is okay," he finally said. "She's okay right now, but she might be . . . " He stopped. He stared at some point beyond my shoulder. "She got some tests done at the doctor. Routine checkup-type stuff. They found . . . " He let this sentence hang there, too, like a soap bubble in the air on a hot day. "But we don't know anything yet. Not for sure."
I didn't know what I was supposed to do. "Okay."
"Do you know what I'm saying?"
"Are you saying anything?"
"Tiffy might be sick. We don't know yet." Dad looked at his hands.
I looked down too. I felt a bad flutter in my stomach, like I'd swallowed something whole that was trying to climb right back out. "Why are you telling me this?"
"I thought you should know. Just in case . . . in case." Dad coughed. His eyes glimmered. "I don't think it'll happen again. It's statistically unlikely. She'll be fine. But it makes me think. And . . . there's something I've been meaning to tell you." He fumbled at his tablet, waking it up. "When you were older, that is, but maybe you're old enough now. I hope you are. Because if Tiffany . . . I'm sorry. I didn't want to tell you like this."
That bad flutter got worse. "Tell me what like this? Dad, you aren't making any sense."
"Look," said Dad. I thought he was going to show me something on his tablet, but he just tapped restlessly from app to app, and he wouldn't let me see. "I've never told you this. I didn't want you to know yet because I was trying to . . . because I don't want you to not be who you are." His face creased. "I don't want you to think you have to stop being a girl, if that's who you want to be."
I was so surprised that I laughed. "Why would I stop being a girl?"
"Your mother's cancer," Dad said. As he spoke, his face turned red and got redder, like he'd been caught doing something wrong. "It was genetic. I mean, it had a very strong genetic component. And the odds of it developing are much worse for women. It's the hormones. Men can carry the mutation too, and of those that do, they are at a bigger risk for the cancer than non-carrying men, but they don't really . . . but if you're a woman it's . . . " He coughed. "You'll probably . . . "
I floated at the edge of understanding, like one of his unfinished, soap-bubble sentences—hanging in space, my surface swirling, ready to pop. "I'll . . . ?"
"No," Dad said. He stood up so fast he hit his knee on the underside of the table, and he swore and fell back into his chair. "No. Listen. There's no guarantee. It's just odds. We don't know. You never know. You can just get tested and monitored, and it might not even mean anything, and there are treatment options. Good options if you catch it in time. With your mom, we just didn't know that we should've been looking. She was adopted. You know that. She didn't—we didn't—Kellsey, look at me—"
I didn't pop, but I did run. All the way up to my room.
A hundred years ago, I know, everything was different. Medicine wasn't as good back then, and people had weird ideas about what human penises meant, so nobody was allowed to stop being a boy or a girl if they didn't like it.
Instead, doctors tried to convince people that they were happy the way they were. Which sounds okay when you say it like that, but you have to remember that medicine wasn't great, and they didn't have a lot of the technology that we do now.
Like the Van Grasse treatment.
I first heard about the treatment from Becci, when she linked to a story from some site in Germany. It said that they take the layer of your brain where your body map lives—the part where you believe yourself to have two arms and two legs and stuff like that—and they zap certain bits of it with tiny wires to reprogram how you think of yourself. So if you're anorexic, it helps you realize how skinny you actually are, or if you've gotten a leg amputated, it helps your brain realize that there isn't a leg there anymore so you don't try to walk on it by mistake.
I read all about it when they brought the treatment to America. But what I didn't know until recently is that cosmetic surgeons are using it, too. So instead of getting surgery for a face lift, you can go in and be like, "Just make me think my face is prettier," and they'll actually be able to do that.
And if the Van Grasse treatment can make you like your face, or your bald spots, or whatever, then it can make you like any part of your body. Or all of your body.
Or the fact of what your body will become, if you don't interrupt it and give it different hormones.
The Van Grasse treatment couldn't do a thing about cancer, but it could make it so I wouldn't want to take hormones anymore and give myself cancer in the first place.
The idea made me feel sick. But if I could control what I wanted, and if I could want something that wouldn't kill me, why not?
"The Van Grasse treatment?" Dr. Webb asked. "I didn't know you were even considering it."
Dr. Webb is a psychiatrist. I see him every week. I'm supposed to tell him everything, and I actually do, because I like him a lot. And anyway, there are laws. He can't tell other people, even my dad, what we talk about, or he could get his license taken.
"Yeah," I said. "They can use it to make me not want to be a girl anymore, right?"
"They can." Dr. Webb wrote something. He takes notes by hand, with pen and paper. I think he mostly does it that way so he has an excuse to chew on the pens. "I take it, then, that you're okay staying on just the blockers for now?"
He meant, "You don't want to start taking female hormones yet, right?" "Yeah," I said. "I guess."
"You don't sound happy about it."
"I'm not." I picked at a hangnail. "I like being a girl, and I want to go on hormones soon, but I also like being alive. I don't want to become a . . . " I curled more deeply into the couch where I sat. "A bunch of videos to somebody."
Dr. Webb nodded. I'd already told him about the cancer part. "That's a tough decision."
"Have you told your dad you've been thinking about getting Van Grassed? Or asked him for advice?"
I made a face. "No."
He nibbled on his pen and made another note. "I see."
"I already know what they'd say," I said. "Tiffy would make some speech about me being true to myself, and Dad would say something about just wanting me to be happy. Which isn't even advice. And what does it mean to be true to yourself, if you can change what's true?" I burrowed my toes under a couch cushion. "I wish I knew what my mom would say. Her advice would be perfect."
"Maybe," said Dr. Webb. "But there's no way of knowing for sure."
"So what are you going to do to help you decide?"
I shoved my feet all the way under the cushion. "I don't know. I guess I could ask you."
Dr. Webb smiled. "You could."
"Well, have you tried doing some research?"
"About the treatment?"
"No," said Dr. Webb. "About the people who've gotten the treatment."
"You mean, like, have I talked to anybody who's had it?"
"Not yet." I kicked at the couch cushion. I'd practically flipped it over by then. "But I will."
I didn't know anybody personally, so I went online. There are forums and message boards for everything. If you can find a forum for people who draw pictures of wolves turning into airplanes (and you can—my friend Shaleya showed me), then you can find one for people who talk about getting Van Grassed. And I did.
In that forum was a sub-forum for people like me. Or maybe, people who used to be like people like me. Whatever. Anyway, I made a post that went like this:
"Hi. im Kellsey and im 11. I used 2 b a boy. im thinking about getting Van Grassed bc if I grow up 2 b a lady, I'll prolly get cancer, bc that's how my mom died.
"but idk how it'd work, really. will I sdnly like all the stuff in my pants? when I think about how I cant get pregnant, will I not cry anymore? will I want to be strong instead of beautiful?
"thx for ur help "
People wrote back after a few days, but they weren't helpful at all. I got answers like this:
"This post breaks my heart."
"I'm so sorry."
"Hi Kellsey, thx for your post. I wanted to grow up to be a woman, too, but instead my parents made me get the treatment about 15 years ago. I don't regret it—I'm not unhappy anymore—but OTOH, not being unhappy isn't the same thing as being happy, if u know what I mean. For me, it isn't so much like I mind. But whether that kind of feeling would satisfy u in prtclr, I can't say."
So then, to get an opposite point of view, I went to this support forum that Dr. Webb tells all of his patients to go to. I figured nobody here would regret their choices, either. I mean, who wakes up one morning, suddenly changes their mind, and goes back to being whatever gender they first started from?
But it turned out I was wrong about that, too, and as I read, I felt more confused than ever. Because some people do change their minds. I read a post by one person where they talked about dressing up like a man one day and then dressing up like a woman the next and how much they liked it. And then a post by someone who said they were born with a vagina, and thought they were a boy until puberty, but then decided they were a girl after all and has been a girl ever since, and that this could happen to anyone, so we should all think very carefully about what we decide. "We should tear down the gender construct entirely," one post said, "by coopting the very technology of the oppressor. What if we all decided to become Van Grassed to regard our so-called sexual characteristics with indifference? What would a post-gender-identification society look like?"
No matter where I looked, I couldn't find any real answers. Only people who all seemed to argue for something different.
I was so frustrated I could've screamed. Instead, I gave up and watched some of Mom's videos—the first ones, from when I was three or four, and Mom sang songs and clapped her hands and had stuffed dinosaurs attack each other. She smiled her secret smile and leaned in, and said, "Remember that I love you," and instead I remembered how I used to believe that she was still real, like a ghost that somehow lived inside the screen, and one day, she'd come out and kiss me.
If only I still believed that. If only things were that simple.
"You want to what?"
Tiffy and I were outside, on the patio. She was brushing out the grill. She's nuts about that grill, and she takes forever to clean it, so I figured she wasn't going anywhere and we could have a nice long talk. But now she'd stopped brushing.
It was a nice day, but I folded my arms and shivered. "Get Van Grassed. I mean . . . I think I want to. Maybe. Probably."
Tiffy set down her brush. "No, you don't. Why are you saying this?"
I squeezed my hands up into my armpits. "How do you know what I want? —You know what, forget it."
I wriggled. "Dad told me something. Okay? My mom . . . I'll probably get the same cancer she had. If I take hormones."
Tiffy stared at me, her face intense but blank.
"Because it's genetic. And they never fixed my genes, because they thought I'd stay a boy."
Tiffy's face went dark. "Did your father only tell you this . . . just now?"
"No. Not just. Maybe like a month ago."
Tiffy shut her eyes. "Last month? He waited this long before telling you?"
"Look, it doesn't matter when he told me. I can still—"
But Tiffy turned and went inside.
I ran after her.
Dad stood on a stepstool in the living room, nailing up a picture. Tiffy had to shout over the pounding. "Gerry! What did you tell Kellsey?"
"Tell who?" said Dad, over the pounding.
"Tiffy!" This was all wrong. This was not how this conversation was supposed to happen at all. "Come back outside!"
"What did you tell Kellsey about her cancer risk?"
Dad's hammer glanced off the nail. He squinted at it, grumbled, and flipped the hammer around. "Let's talk about this another time, okay?"
"What did you tell her, goddamnit?"
Dad yanked out the nail, pulled another from his pocket, and pounded away. "What I had to."
"It doesn't matter!" I shouted. "Dad, stop!"
"Tell him what you told me," said Tiffy. "About getting Van Grassed instead. Go ahead—tell him."
Dad stopped pounding. He looked down at me incredulously, and Tiffy scowled at me, and I felt like they were somehow blaming me for trying to solve a mess that I had never even asked for. Sometimes, there's no way out, Mom had said once, in a video she'd made near the end of her life. She was skeletal-thin and un-beautiful, then, and she didn't want to smile. You just gotta face the music. But it's never as bad as you're afraid it will be, once you're on the other side. That's what I keep telling myself lately.
"Van Grassed?" said Dad. "You mean . . . ? Oh, Kellsey . . . "
"Don't look at me like that!" I shouted. "What else am I supposed to do?"
"Be yourself," begged Tiffy, but Dad's face crumpled, and I wondered how often he'd looked devastated like that when holding Mom's hand, at the end.
"How can I be myself if myself is dead?" I demanded. "And what if Tiffy dies too? Then what?" I looked at Dad. "Who'll be left for you to—to—"
Tiffy's eyebrows leapt up. "But honey, why would I die? I'm not going anywhere."
Dad puffed out his cheeks and rubbed the back of his head. I knew that look. "She doesn't know?" I demanded, as Dad climbed down from the stepstool.
"I don't know what?" said Tiffy.
"That Dad told me that you—"
Dad held up his other hand. "Kellsey. It's fine." His eyes darted over to Tiffy, nervously. "We got more tests done, and—and Tiffy's fine. She's not sick."
"Christ on a crossbeam!" said Tiffy. "You told her? I told you not to say anything unless—"
"Well, forgive me!" Dad burst out. "I thought I might lose you, and how was I to—"
"And that's when you decided to tell her, for the very first time, about her own cancer risk? Jesus, Gerry, you've got one hell of a warped sense of timing."
"And what would you've wanted me to do? Sit there and keep quiet about it?"
"I would've wanted you to tell her sooner! For God's sake, she's not an infant! You should have—"
"Well, I didn't—"
"And now she's got this completely ridiculous idea about—"
"You can't have it both ways, Tiffany; either she's old enough to decide things for herself or—"
"—not when a major life decision is coming from a place of fear—"
"—oh well excuse me for caring!—"
I couldn't stand it anymore. I turned and kicked the wall and screamed, "I am so sick of this stupid family and its stupid secrets! Nobody ever tells me anything! And when they do, half the time it isn't even true!"
"Excuse me," said Dad sharply. "But I don't think you'd rather that Tiffany have cancer after all. You should be grateful for the way things are."
"Oh," I said. "Yeah. I'm over the moon. Tiffy won't die, I'll turn into a sweaty football jock someday, and everybody will have a happy ending."
What was wrong with me? What was wrong with everyone?
I ran up to my room.
Who even cared? People grow and change all the time. Who would even care if I changed into something different? Maybe Dad would pretend like my Van Grasse idea bothered him, but did he really want to sit around someday and watch again while I, too, made videos for an unborn baby?
"Kellsey," said Tiffy. She knocked on my door. "Let me in."
"Go away," I shouted. "You're not my mom."
"And thank God for that. Let me in."
"Kellsey, I promise I can make you feel better if you'd just let me come in and talk to you."
"Oh, you promise," I shouted bitterly. "Unless you can Van Grasse me so I don't care about dying anymore, there's nothing you can do, so why don't you go. Away."
I jammed my face into my pillow and cried.
Tiffy went away.
When I could breathe again, I grabbed my tablet and swiped through her videos. There had to be something. Why wasn't there anything? For months and months, right up until she died, she'd shot piles of them. You'd think that, if you're that dedicated to a project, you'd also be thorough enough to cover every single possible topic. I had videos of her doing nothing but reading me poems. I had a video of her making farting noises with her armpits and laughing. There was a video of her building a teetering tower of wooden blocks, and a video where she did a handstand, but not one single sentence where she had ever said, "You're going to be so pretty."
I navigated through the unwatched list, the huge vault of stuff that I'd screened over and over for keywords that I wished had been there. But all the unwatched videos were boring and maybe impossible. Would I even live long enough to care about car insurance or buying a house? Or handling rude people at work? Or having neck pain?
Or getting scary news at the doctor.
Or being afraid of dying . . .
I slowed down. I scrolled more slowly, too. I'd come to the patch of stuff about Mom's health problems, and while it had never been a thing I'd really wanted to look at before—I hate seeing Mom cry—it seemed important now.
I found a video called, "If You Ever Get a Diagnosis".
I played it.
"Hi, Kevin," said Mom. She'd shot this video outside somewhere, on a sunny, still day. She sat on a white porch swing, smiling, one leg tucked under her, the other hanging, a leather sandal dangling from her toes. She wore a blue sundress. She looked happy and confident, like someone in a commercial.
It wasn't what I expected at all.
"So," Mom said. "You've got breast cancer." She spread her arms open and laughed. "Ta-da!"
I wiped my eyes on my sleeves.
"Well, I'm sure I don't need to tell you how rare it is for men to get it. And I'm sure, since you've come this far, I don't need to tell you how much riskier it is for men and how much harder it is to treat." She shrugged. "You've got the Internet. And you're watching this in the future, so, maybe cancer treatments will be a little better by the time you see this, and maybe a diagnosis won't be such a big deal."
She reached into the crook of her knee and pulled out a clementine. She peeled it as she spoke. "Anyway, I've actually tried to make this video six times already. All of the other versions were awful, because I kept crying, and I don't want to give you that—a video that only makes you afraid." She popped a piece of the clementine into her mouth. "Because being afraid of something, especially something inevitable, never helps.
"So I'm making this particular video for you because I want you to think of it this way: a diagnosis of cancer—any cancer, every cancer, every possible stage of cancer—is just a . . . " Mom peeled off a slice of clementine, considered it, and popped it into her mouth, too. "A narrowing. It's a narrowing of the window of time during which we will probably die. Does that make sense?
"Look, this is cliché, but anyone could get flattened by a truck tomorrow and be gone. Most people, for most of their lives, have no idea when death is coming, so when people do get an updated forecast on when their doom will arrive—e.g., 'Well, we're pretty sure you'll be dead in a year, because cancer'— they freak out. It shatters our illusion that we have all the time in the world.
"But we don't, Kevin. And that's. . . " She ate more clementine. "That's actually . . . almost a gift. Because when you no longer have all the time in the world—when you know, I mean truly know that your number is coming up, you get a sudden clarity. You realize what's important. And you know that you have to . . . "
She stopped. Her mouth went tight, and I felt a prickling behind my eyes. So she was going to cry after all.
But she didn't. Instead, Mom put aside the rest of her clementine, and she folded both her legs underneath her and she smiled. "You have to do what you need to do, and you have to be what you need to be. In my case? I'm a mom. I can't birth children myself, and I'm sure I'll die before you're born—however you are born, if you even are born—but I believe in you, and I believe in this, and I believe in us and I believe in love. I believe so much in what I was put on this planet to do, my dear boy, that I am going to spend the rest of my time here being a mom to you, in advance, so I can be there for you when you need me.
"Do you get what I mean? I'm saying that the diagnosis has given me this: the understanding that you are the most important thing in my world, and that being a mom is all I want to be."
Mom reached forward. She pulled the tablet off of whatever tripod she'd had it on, and she cradled it in her lap, like it was the baby she'd never get to hold.
"What about you?" she said, softly. "What do you want to be?"
She smiled. The video ended.
Spots of color hit the screen where my tears fell.
What do I want to be?
I remembered my sixth birthday, the year Mom had called me "the birthday boy" and I'd thrown the tablet against the wall and screamed. Before that, there had been a party. I'd worn a white dress with purple lace, and all my friends had come—Marya and Becci and Shaleya, and Courtney and her twin sister Janice—and there was vanilla cake and presents in pink and gold paper. And every present said, "To Kellsey".
I want to be Kellsey. I want to be Kellsey, and there was literally no possible way that Mom could ever understand that. She didn't have an opinion on what I should do because she never even realized I might want the choice. And she never would.
And even though I was afraid of me dying, and Dad and Tiffy probably were too, I was afraid of Kellsey dying. Not Kevin.
Kevin was already dead.
Someone knocked on my door again. "Kellsey," said Tiffy. "Are you ready to talk yet? Can I come in?"
I threw the tablet onto the floor and kicked it under the bed.
Then I opened the door and hugged her.
This story originally appeared in Strange Horizons.