The word of your body is not an apology.
It doesn’t whisper “Sorry” it growls “Listen
to me instead of telling. My shape has its own meaning.
There’s a language written in my skin
for me alone.” The word of your body
is not a surrender. It does not know how
to cry “Mercy” but it can snarl “Feel
the scars on my arms and my ribs
that are all that’s left of the holes in me,
the hot flash of my unceasing breath,
my nails that bite my palms like hungry lovers.”
The word of your body is not permission.
It does not say “You may” it says “I am
and you are. Perhaps we can translate
the language of your skin and the language of mine
and find the words to say to each other
that will let us share space in this world.”
– Written by Cass for hir eleventh grade English class
I. Mascara and Foundation
Stage 2 of Dad Getting His Act Together, after Stage 1: Getting a Job, was Operation Spring Cleaning. He made me go through my pigsty of a room from top to bottom while he attacked the bathroom.
I was crawling under my bed to figure out what was living down there when Dad knocked on my door. I crawled back out and opened it.
Dad was holding the bottle of liquid foundation and the tube of mascara I had hidden in the back of the medicine cabinet. He raised his eyebrows. “These yours?”
I’d love to say that time slowed down, like in the Matrix, and I analyzed all the possibilities to figure out the smoothest, smartest thing to say. But the truth is, I’m not all that good at coming with stuff on the fly. So instead of something smooth and smart, I said, “Well, the foundation matches my skin tone, doesn’t it?”
“Oh. Huh. You have been wearing a lot of pink lately, but I didn’t realize it was…” Dad fell quiet for a beat or two, then said, “Are you gay, Marco? I know I haven’t been much of a dad lately, but I want to know what’s going on in your life. I don’t care if you are, you know. I love you no matter what.”
I had to stop and think about the answer to that. I’d asked myself that question before, and sometimes I thought maybe yes and sometimes I thought definitely not. I thought Rachel was pretty, I knew that for sure. If I was a boy, then that meant I wasn’t gay. But if I was a girl, that meant I was, at least a little. That wasn’t what Dad was asking, of course. He thought liking girl things meant I was gay, but that wasn’t what it was about. Still, it was easier to go with it than explain. “Um. I don’t know. I’m kind of working it out.”
Dad’s eyes went very soft. “Thanks for being honest with me, Marco. Whatever you end up deciding, I’ve got your back.”
I wasn’t being honest, not really. But if he thought I was, then maybe he’d pay less attention to the big lies I had to tell. “Can I keep the makeup?”
“If you want.” He passed it to me. “Hey. Are the kids at school giving you trouble about this? The pink, and the…” He gestured at the makeup in my hand.
I shrugged. “Sometimes. I deal with it.”
“Well, if you want me to talk to the vice principal or anything…”
“Dad, I’m fine. I don’t care what those morons say.” I started to turn away.
“Good. Your mother would be proud.”
I looked back at Dad. “Really? You think so?”
Dad got that distant smile on his face he gets when he has a happy memory about Mom. “I saw your mother nearly a punch a man who told her she wore too much makeup. She said it was her business what she wanted to put on her face and no one else’s. I’m sure she’d say the same goes for you.”
My eyes and throat prickled. My mom is so beautiful. Sometimes I look at pictures of her and think I want to grow up to look just like her. Everyone says I already do. “Thanks, Dad.”
Dad looked at the makeup in my hand. “Now don’t just throw those on the floor. Find a drawer for them or you’ll never find them again.”
“Yeah, yeah, Dad, get off my case. I’m cleaning. Look, you can see the floor next to my bed!”
“I want to see all of the floor by dinnertime. Better get going.”
I thought about finding a drawer, then decided to put the makeup on top of my dresser. Anyone who’d make fun of me for it didn’t belong in my bedroom anyway.
II. Dresses and Blazers
It wasn’t that the clothes didn’t fit. Of course they did. They were Jude’s, and I’d morphed him. But his flannel shirt and cargo shorts felt off, like they were hanging too loose on me. When I’m in less of a girly mood I wear a Ramones T-shirt and jeans, but Jude butches it up.
And before you ask: no, it didn’t feel weird to have Jude’s lady parts. Or at least, no more or less weird than it did to have my boy parts. Just different. His hips were only a little wider than mine, and you couldn’t see them through the cargo shorts anyway, but I liked the way my weight fell across them. I wasn’t sure how I felt about his chest, which was a little jigglier than mine. Anything else was none of my business, and I was going to avoid thinking about it until I had to use the bathroom.
Anyway, it was Friday night, and if hurried up, I’d get back in time for the Shabbat candle lighting. I’d heard the prayer enough times at his house that I knew it by heart. I took Jude’s house key from my pocket and opened the door.
It wasn’t time yet. I could smell food cooking in the kitchen. Tom was in the living room watching TV. He looked up when I came in. “Hey, Judy.”
I fought down a flinch. “Hey, Tom.” I sniffed. “Is that rosemary chicken I smell?”
“Yep. Dad defrosted some chicken breasts.”
“Honey, Judith’s home!” said Jean.
“Good! Come sit down. It’s time for dinner,” said Steve.
I didn’t get a chance to show off my Jewish knowledge, because Tom did the candle lighting. But I did say “Amen” with everyone else and tucked in.
“Your cousin Brooke’s Bat Mitzvah is coming up,” Steve said.
Jude had mentioned. It was just for the day, so hopefully nothing terrible would happen while he was gone. “Yeah, I remember.”
“Yeah, I told the Sharing folks I couldn’t make it to the volunteer thing we have that day.”
“We’ll leave the house at 7 a.m. sharp, so make sure you’re packed up beforehand,” said Jean. “Have you thought about what you’re going to wear?”
Jean gave Jude a dress for his 13th birthday. Jude would never wear it. It was a good thing I stood in for Jude instead of Ax. He wouldn’t have known to fight Jean over what Jude could wear to the Bat Mitzvah. Mostly, Jude would want to wear his normal clothes. He always looks so uncomfortable when he dresses up. But Jean would expect more than that.
“I thought I’d wear my nice blue button-down and my khakis,” Tom said. “And a blazer if it gets chilly.”
“Me too,” I said. I was pretty sure Jude had those, and if he didn’t, I’d grab whatever allowance he had saved up and get them. He’d think it was worth it.
“Not your nice dress, Judith?” Jean said.
“Mom,” I said. “You know I don’t like dresses. I’ll be dressed up, just not like that.”
“Jude, one day you’ll get over this tomboy phase, and you’ll thank me for that dress.”
I wanted to smart-talk her, but Jude wouldn’t. “Whatever,” I mumbled into my chicken. She acted like she knew everything about Jude and his future, when really she knew shit. My dad could be kind of clueless sometimes, but he asked me what I thought about my life instead of just telling me.
I had been with his family for less than an hour, and already I wanted to kidnap Jude and make him be my brother instead.
III. Cute and Pretty
“So,” I said, because I wasn’t sure what else to say. “Your mom doesn’t get all weird about you having boys in your room?”
Rachel smirked. “I told her you were transsexual too. As far she’s concerned, it’s just us girls.”
I shrugged and smiled. “Kind of true.”
“You have a purple scrunchie in your hair and you’re here to get a makeover. That’s good enough for her.”
“I thought I was doing you too!”
“Yeah, but I’m better at makeup, so mostly it’s for you.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s just ‘cause I haven’t figured out my gender yet and you did when you were four.”
“You don’t have to pick one or the other, Marco. Just do whatever the fuck you want. Be both.”
“How would that work?”
“However you want it to. Now give me your foundation and sit down.”
I sat on the edge of her bed. I couldn’t help but notice how girly her room was. The bedcovers were red. The curtains were purple. Everything was neat and smelled good. My room was nothing like this. Rachel pulled up a chair so her face was more or less level with mine, and got out this really nice foundation brush. “Close your eyes,” she said. I did. Her brush flicked gently across my face. I felt her breath. It smelled like sweet herbs, rosemary and sage. I thought of that kiss in the boys’ locker room and felt my face get hot.
“Okay. Open your eyes.” Her face was so close I could count her eyelashes. “Ooh, nice. Now pucker up, I’ve got a great sheer lip gloss for you.” She dipped her finger in lip gloss and pressed it, shining, to my lips. I wanted to suck her finger into my mouth, just to see how she’d react. “That looks great. Oh man, you’re going to look so good in this eyeshadow. Close your eyes. It’s a surprise.”
Another smaller brush blended the eyeshadow across my lids. I thought about the kiss again. Did she want to kiss some more? I wanted to get my lip gloss all over her lips. I wanted to taste her until my breath smelled just like hers.
Next came the cool touch of liquid eyeliner. I imagined us with our faces done up, lying on this bed with the red covers, giggling and grabbing each other’s butts. Being in this space, Rachel’s space, made me imagine wild, impossible things.
“I’ll finish off with mascara. Well, I want to do your nails later, but you should do my face next and then we’ll do nails. Ugh, you have such nice eyelashes, Marco. They’re going to be, like, movie star long with this mascara.” Brush, brush. “Okay. Open your eyes.”
I blinked them open. Rachel was grinning. “Hell yeah! I am the Leonardo da Vinci of makeup. Go look in the mirror.”
I stood up and looked in the mirror above Rachel’s dresser. My lips looked huge and shiny. Shimmering green eyeshadow complimented the olive tone of my skin. Before I could stop myself, I said, “I’m pretty.”
Rachel came up behind me in the mirror. “I thought you already knew that.”
“I know I’m cute,” I said. “I didn’t know I was pretty.”
Rachel grabbed me by the shoulder and spun me around. She had a mischievous smile on her face, but her eyes were so soft. She kissed me. It was hot and fierce and caring, just like her. When the kiss broke, I saw her lips were shiny too.
“You’re pretty too,” I said, before my brain could catch up. “Can I touch your butt? I really, really want to touch your butt.”
Rachel flushed. “Listen. I really like you for some reason, and we both find each other pretty, and that’s great, but I – I’m not sure I can do sex, with, um, the parts I have. It’s just – some of it doesn’t even feel like it’s mine sometimes, and I want sex to be me, you know, all of me.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine.” After the war, I wanted to say. After the war, you can fix it, and then I’ll touch all of you, because it’ll be you. But after-the-war was too dangerous, so I just said, “But still, for right now, can I kiss you and grab your butt?”
Rachel leaned her forehead against mine and laughed into my open mouth, little puffs of hot, sweet breath. “Yeah. Okay. As long as I get to grab your butt too.”
IV. Son and Daughter
Dinner was almost ready. Nora was cooking, which still felt wrong, even though she was a better cook than Dad, and maybe even than Mom, though I’d never admit that to anyone. Dad was in the kitchen with Nora, probably kissing her or watching her all moon-eyed or something gross like that. The doorbell rang.
I wondered who it could be. I figured I’d better answer it, in case it was Animorphs-related. “I’ll get it,” I shouted, and opened the door.
Jude was standing there with a duffel bag over his shoulder and his eyes red from crying. The last time I saw him like that, Tom had tried to kill his dad. “Shit,” I said. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s not about anything from Cassie’s barn,” Jude said hoarsely. “Can I come in?”
I relaxed, but only a little. Just because it wasn’t Animorphs-related didn’t mean it wasn’t a shitstorm. “Of course, man. We’re about to have dinner. I’ll set another place at the table.” I yelled over my shoulder, “Hey, Dad! Jude’s here! Can, uh, she eat with us?”
“Sure! Come on in, Jude.”
Jude’s jaw unclenched a little. “Thanks. I, um, need to stay over too. Can we talk before dinner? Alone?”
“Yeah, come drop off your bag in my room.”
Jude managed to find a clear space on the floor for his bag. He straddled my swivel chair, rested his chin on the back, and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hand. He looked about five years old and fifty at the same time. I sat on my bed facing him and waited.
“Dad was concerned about my Tanner stage,” Jude said. “You know, my stage of puberty. I’m fifteen and only at Tanner Stage 2. It’s not normal. He was going to take me to get my blood drawn.”
“They’d notice the puberty blockers in your bloodstream,” I realized. It was a damn good thing morphing all the time kept us so healthy. I hadn’t had to get my blood drawn since I became an Animorph.
“Yeah. Not to mention the animal DNA.”
“So I told them about the meds. I figured it was the only way to get them to stop freaking out. But that just made it worse. They said I was taking dangerous illegal drugs that were stunting my growth. Never mind that I’m 5’7” and the Chee say I’m doing fine. They said I wasn’t allowed to take the meds anymore, and I was grounded. So I ran away. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“What about the Yeerks? Keeping an eye on Tom? Protecting your parents?” I hated myself for saying it, but I had to.
“Marco, if I stop the drugs, it’ll kill me. This war is bad enough. I can’t handle that plus breasts and hips and bleeding out of my uterus. It’ll break me, and… you need me. The Animorphs need me.”
“So you need to stay with us until your parents get a clue.” If they ever get a clue.
“Yeah. Do you think your dad will…”
“I think so. I’ve already kind of explained my own deal to him. Hey, Dad, still your son, also kind of your daughter. He rolled with it. Said that my mom always wanted a daughter, and he wanted a son, so they both got what they wanted, right?” I smiled a little, remembering that. “Nora doesn’t really get it, but she treats me okay. And Dad loves you. You’re a good influence on me, supposedly. So I think you’ll be fine.”
“Marco, Jude!” called Dad from downstairs. “Dinner’s ready!”
I looked at Jude. “One minute, Dad!”
“It’s… God, such a relief. I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulder for Tom. Or waiting for the next awful thing my parents will say.” He laughed bitterly. “I’m happier without my own family. How fucked is that?”
“It’s not you who’s fucked. It’s them. Well, it’s not Tom’s fault. But you know.”
Jude looked down at his hands. “What happens when they find out, Marco? About everything? Will they finally figure out how much damage they did? Will it make any difference?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to think that saving the world comes with the shiny prize of finally being treated like a real person, but I don’t think that’s true. I think we’ll still have to fight to be who we want to be. That’s the way it is, Jude. We’re bleeding to save a world that doesn’t give a shit about us.”
“Well,” said Jude. “We give a shit about each other. And we need to be saved too.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. And I’m here for you. Even when you’re about to make my room a worse mess than it already is. Come on, man. Nora made minestrone and bruschetta for dinner.”
V. Brother and Sister
I gave Mom and Dad some time to themselves. They deserved it. Anyway, I was still a little scared to find out what she thought of me after all this time. I knew she loved me, but she hadn’t said anything about my long hair, my pink and purple morphing outfit. Or about the other Animorphs, for that matter.
Jude and I were trying to start a fire. Jude had been a Girl Scout for a year and figured he might be able to get one going with a few well-placed matches. “Do we have paper anywhere? This kindling is good but there’s nothing like a good newspaper to start a fire.”
“Only a few books, and I don’t think we can burn those.”
“Hey, boys,” said Mom. I looked up and saw her bruised, battered face in the evening light. She was smiling. I looked back at Jude. He’d put down the matches and looked up at Mom, startled.
“So Dad told you.”
“That he got you a brother without telling me?” Mom raised her eyebrow, but her eyes had that old spark.
“He said he always wanted a son, and you always wanted a daughter,” I said.
“And we both got what we wanted. Just not how we expected.” Eva squatted down next to us, picked up the matchbox, and lit four sticks of kindling around the fire pit. The flames grew and joined. She closed her eyes and took in the warmth, then scooted behind me to start braiding my hair. The rhythm of her fingers and the heat of the fire were so soothing. “I’m so sorry, Jude. I would never have expected Steve and Jean to behave in such a shameful way toward their own child.”
“I didn’t expect it either,” Jude mumbled.
“You’re very brave, mijo. Everything you’ve done.” She leaned forward and said in my ear, “You too, mija.”
That meant so much coming from Mom, the bravest person I know. My throat burned. I was crying. I looked up at Jude. He was crying too. We never do that. We were doing it now.
“We’re going to try to rescue Tom soon,” Jude said. “We’re going to bring him here, and my mom and dad. Would you and Peter…”
“Try to talk them around?” Mom was almost done with my braid. It hung thick between my shoulder blades. “Yeah. I’ll do what I can. But you can’t make someone feel compassion. You can only encourage what’s there.”
I reached out and clapped Jude on the shoulder. “Even if they don’t come around, Jude, you’ll have a family.”
“Yes,” said Mom. “You have us.”
VI. Wars and Stories
Rachel and I lay side by side on the grass, staring up at the stars. In the distance I could hear Jude, Cass, Steve, and Jean chatting with the Hork-Bajir around the campfire. The night was cool, but Rachel’s hand was warm in mine. I watched the shades of night-flying birds move across the stars and thought about the chances that we would die tomorrow.
I figured the chance was highest for Rachel. I knew what part I was supposed to play, but I didn’t know all of hers. That was either because Jude had planned something high-risk for her, or she had decided on her own to make a hard play, and she didn’t want to tell me. It didn’t bother me that she wouldn’t tell me. I thought it was more for her sake than mine.
Hot panic flared up inside me. There were so many things I hadn’t done yet with Rachel. There was so much I still didn’t understand about her. But I didn’t want to force her into a Last Night On Earth Feelings Extravaganza. So I gave myself permission for one question, one thing I always wanted to know about Rachel, but never got to ask.
“Hey Rachel,” I said, rubbing my thumb over her knuckles. “What have you thought about doing after the war?”
“Well, you know. Hormones. And breast implants. You know how much work I put into my falsies? Every time I make a new set, I think about breast implants.”
I huffed out a laugh. “Well, duh. And I’m going to get a pair of size 9 Manolos. Old news. What do you want to do?”
Rachel thought about that for a while. A breeze brought the rise and fall of Hork-Bajir laughter and the heady smell of woodsmoke. “If we win this war, we’re going to be heroes. The whole world will know our names. Our real names, because they won’t get to ignore us when we tell them what they are. I want to use that to help kids like us. I mean, can you imagine what it’s like? If you don’t have friends like us?”
“No. I bet it sucks.”
“I know it’s a coincidence that we’re all transsexual, or different like Tobias and Ax, but it doesn’t feel like one. It feels like a chance to do something awesome.”
“Even more awesome than saving the world?”
Rachel turned toward me, away from the stars. “Well, yeah. Everybody wants to save the world. But hardly anybody wants to share a bathroom with a transsexual.”
“Not me. I never wanted to save the world. I still don’t think I do. Mostly I just want to save the people in this valley. If that means saving the world along the way, well, that’s a hell of a plus, but it’s not the point. I’m not like you, Rachel. This war’s all I’ve got in me. After this, I’m tapped out. No more fighting.” Rachel was different. She had a hundred thousand wars in her. She would run out before they did.
“You’ll have to tell stories, then. You’re good at that. Not just about the war. You should talk about that time I helped you shop in the girls’ department for the first time. Remember that? And the time Cass went through all the newsgroups and found hir favorite pronouns on the one about bondage.”
I laughed. “You think people will want to hear about that?”
“I dunno. Maybe, maybe not. But they should hear about it.” She squeezed my hand. “C’mon, just do it. For me. It’s not like you’d do anything better with your time anyway.”
It felt a little too much like a last request to say no. So I kissed her and said, “Okay, Rachel. I promise.”
VII. Names and Legends
As the Fast-Courier ship landed on the National Mall, my mouth went dry, and my eyes prickled. God, I wasn’t ready for this. I might start crying again, and everyone in the world would see. This entire planet was about to see a motley bunch of teenage gender outlaws announce that we saved the world. That was going to be hard enough for them to swallow without watching a Chicano ladyboy cry about it.
There had to be at least three thousand people down there. Some of them had guns. Most of them had cameras. We stepped out onto the lawn. There was a blinding explosion of camera flashes. Somehow, Jude kept his cool. “We represent the allied forces of the Andalite military and the Earth Liberation Army. The spaceships that destroyed Santa Barbara were commanded by an alien force called the Yeerk Empire. They have been defeated in space, though the fight to liberate people on the ground in California and beyond must continue.”
“And who are you?” cried the reporters.
“This is Prince Aximili-Esgarrouth-Isthill of the Andalite military and the Earth Liberation Army. Cass Johnson, Marco López Cheng, Tobias Calladan, of the Earth Liberation Army.”
I jerked a thumb at Jude. “And this is Jude Berenson. Our general.”
“There’s more of us,” Cass said, voice breaking. “Ones who gave their lives for this. Jude’s cousins, Rachel and Tom Berenson. James O’Rourke. Collette St. Germain. Fifteen more. General Samuel Doubleday and his soldiers.”
Just like she said: the whole world will know our names. A roar rose up in my ears. I lost time. All I could hear was Rachel saying I love you with doom in her eyes. When I came back to the world, a reporter was saying, “Official records say that Tobias Calladan has been reported missing for three years, and Santa Barbara PD had warrants out for Judith and Reuben Berenson. So who are you, really?”
My face went hot. The world around me went quiet while the inside of my head screamed a thousand things at once. They couldn’t do this to my friends. They couldn’t do this to Rachel. She said they would know her real name, because they wouldn’t be able to ignore her. But she was dead, and they were already starting to ignore her. So I had to do what I said I’d never do. I had to fight her war.
I stepped out in front. “Those police records are all related to the Yeerk invasion. We can explain those later. But there’s something you all need to get straight, right now.”
Thousands of reporters watched me. Millions, maybe billions, of people watched me through their cameras. The Animorphs all watched me with fierce smiles in their eyes. They knew what I was doing. “Hir name – ” I pointed – “is Cass. His name is Jude. And his cousin died to stop a threat that could have turned this victory to a defeat.” The tears were filling my eyes now. I didn’t care anymore. “She was brave. She was good. Her name was Rachel Berenson, and we will never let you forget.”