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Gender Swap

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"Are you doing anything this Saturday?" asks Cecil one morning, as the coffee starts to kick in.

Carlos, at the stove frying eggs (they're at least 120% larger than chicken eggs, with blue speckled shells; he isn't even going to ask) considers. "The Gutierrezes said I could have an old clock of theirs for science reasons, so I'm picking that up in the morning...but my afternoon's free."

"Oh, good! The gender swap starts at three. Do you want to come with me?"

"The what?"

"The semiannual Night Vale Gender Swap! I have some old genders in the back of my closet that I haven't touched in years; I keep meaning to trade them in. It's so much fun. Have you ever been?"

"This is one of those, um, quaint small-town traditions that we don't have in the big city," says Carlos. "I've been to book swaps, though. Is it anything like that?"

"Pretty similar, yeah. But you'll be able to leave your gas mask at home."

 

***

 

The empty lot out behind the Ralph's has been set up with rows of tables by the time Cecil and Carlos arrive. People wander up and down the aisles, while dealers talk up the genders they have in stock on their hangers and shelves.

Cecil brought his spares in a canvas shopping bag. He plops it down on Jackie Fierro's table and cracks open the lid. "Can I interest you in any of these?"

Jackie shines a penlight in the box and holds a jeweler's loupe in front of one eye. "Did they just come out of the closet recently?"

"Earlier this week. Is that a problem?"

"They still look functional, but they're pretty dusty. Let me give you a hand." Jackie retrieves a can of compressed air from a crate under her table and sends a couple of whooshes over the genders. "Much better...oh, wow, is this one genuine tritiya-prakrti? That's an antique! Make sure you talk to the Donaldsons. They'd love to get their hands on one of these."

 

***

 

Frances Donaldson is thrilled with the ancient gender. "I'll swap you any two on my shelves for this. No, any three!"

"I was supposed to be organizing my storage space, not making it more crowded," says Cecil ruefully. (Carlos notices him eyeing one of the genders on the top shelf with a certain amount of yearning.) "The ones in the cabinet are other old and valuable ones, right? Can I take a look at those?"

While Frances is unlocking the cabinet, her sibling, Germaine, leans over the table and speaks under their breath. "Is the modern one you're using now up for trade? No pressure if you're really attached to it, but if not, I'd be interested. You've kept it in great condition."

"Aw, you're too kind," says Cecil modestly. "I can't make any promises, but see that one on the high shelf? Third from the left? Could you take it down? Just so I can try it on."

 

***

 

There is a man in a tan jacket.

Carlos ends up standing behind him in the line for the hot dog cart.

"Just looking around?" asks the man. (Carlos nods.) "Me too. Sometimes I think it would be nice to switch again...but my current gender is one of the few things anyone manages to remember about me, and I'd hate to screw that up."

"So you've done this before?" asks Carlos, interest piqued. "Can I ask what gender you used to have?"

"Binary female. I know, I know, swapping that for binary male is such a cliché, but what can I say? It felt right at the time."

"Hey, I'm not trying to criticize! I'm just curious. That's the second thing a scientist is," says Carlos quickly. "Wait -- does that mean you used to be a trans woman and now you're a cis man? Or you used to be a cis woman and now you're a trans man?"

The man grins. "Can't tell just by looking, huh?"

"...I can't tell anything just by looking at you. Even right now, when I'm staring you in the face while you're smiling, I can't be totally sure if you have a mouth."

 

***

 

"Hey, scientist!" calls Tamika Flynn from the Book Club table as Carlos walks by. "Want to buy a fictional gender? We're fundraising for new slingshots."

"Didn't bring extra cash, sorry." But Carlos slows down to say hi anyway. Tamika seems different from when he last saw aer -- did ae do something new with aer hair? Or maybe..."Hey, what's that one you're using?"

"Phaen. Got it from David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus. We've got ooloi and smizmar on the shelf here, and a whole stack of Asimov genders under the table. We're dealing in nonfictional genders too -- if you don't have cash, maybe you could hand yours in?"

"I'm really not looking to swap today," says Carlos apologetically.

"Make it a donation?"

"It's the only one I have! If I had any extras you could take them, honest, but you can't expect me to just walk around without a gender at all."

Tamika's brow furrows. "Why not? My mom hasn't had one for years. Pawned it when she went back to school to help make ends meet, and as far as I know she's never missed it."

 

***

 

"That's not a gender."

"Sure it is."

"Cecil, I'm telling you, that is not a gender."

"How do you know, Carlos? Are you some kind of gender expert? Do you have a degree in genderology that I was not previously aware of?"

"No, I do not study gender. I study science. I'm a scientist. And as an expert in science, I have every confidence in telling you that -- scientifically speaking -- that thing? Is a socket wrench."

Cecil studies the object on the tablecloth more closely. "Huh," he says. "So it is."

Carlos feels very proud of himself.

"I'll take it!"

"An excellent decision," says the dealer at the table. "Would you like me to put that in a box for you?"

 

***

 

The sun is low in the sky by the time Carlos and Cecil leave the swap.

Between trading, dealing, and donating, Cecil has managed to downsize to a single spare gender, which sits in the bag over his shoulder (along with the wrench). He's also actively using a new one. There's a spring in his step, the one he always gets after making a good bargain, but if there's anything else new or different about him, Carlos can't tell. His face and hair are the same. He's wearing the same clothing. He's....

Hang on. "Should I, um, call you anything different?" asks Carlos. "That is, should I start using new pronouns now, or something?"

"No, no. Stick with he and him," says Cecil reassuringly.

Oh, good. Not that Carlos wouldn't have made the effort, if Cecil asked him to. But when so many things in Night Vale have tripped him up by changing just as he was getting used to them, it's nice to know that this won't --

"The semiannual pronoun swap is next weeked."