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In the last surviving cities of a ruined world, the concept of “woman” has been forgotten to history. Those unfortunate enough to lack a Y chromosome live as second-class citizens in a world dominated by mascs.
Ember is Y negative. He is scorned, bullied, abused by every masc he encounters, at work and at the gym. Not even his Y negative roommate cuts him any slack. He wants so desperately to be accepted as a masc that he’d rather buy black market testosterone than food. Something’s gotta give—he needs a change in his life, but has no idea how to find it.
Jess is a masc with a passion for studying the recovery of their devastated world. His boyfriend is pressuring him for more commitment, and his father expects him to take over the family business. He can’t wait to get away from civilization for his seasonal research out in the wild.
When Jess offers Ember a job, their lives collide in the isolated wasteland, and their initial attraction turns into a relationship that horrifies those around them. Soon their struggle to stay together and to be who they are turns into a fight for their lives.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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This would be one of those days, I could tell. One of those days when clients would underpay me, the hot water would run out before I could shower, or some masc would decide I’m looking at him funny and bust my lip to teach me a lesson. It was the stink in the air, that acidic humidity. Made people irritable.
“Hello, this is Ember Dawson, from K Street Repair and Upgrade. Your console will be ready to pick up from the hours of ten to seventeen. Thank you!”
I took off my headset and dropped my head to my hands, my thumbs cupped under the short beard on my chin. Come on, it’s too early to wallow. I can get on with my life; that’s what andros do.
At least it was time to work out. “You ready to go?” I called, shoving myself to my feet and hefting my gym bag.
“Yeah, just a second.” Niche’s reply came muffled through his door.
Standing at the desk I had sandwiched between the couch and the hallway to the bedrooms, I downed a glass of water mixed with nutritional supplement. Ugh, so bitter. But at least it would sustain me through the workout.
“Let’s go.” Niche popped an earbud into one ear as he walked past me.
I grabbed my Common and earbuds off my desk and followed Niche out, scanning the hallway for mascs. It was vacant, thankfully, except for the damp, bitter-smelling air. Niche hummed to the song playing in his ear, his unused earbud swinging against his chest. He was wearing his old surrogacy shirt, which hung loose on his frame. I didn’t get why he still had his; I had burned mine.
“Let’s do three miles today, okay?” He bounded down the stairs to the first floor of the apartment complex.
“If you don’t want to go the whole distance, you can wait for me.” I pushed open the door at the end of the hall that led straight into the next building over, which was more apartments.
“So I spend the last ten minutes admiring your abs. I see how you like it.”
Not this again: complimenting my body as if it made me feel better. “How many times have I told you it takes more than running to get these?”
We passed through another doorway into the gym, masc perspiration pleasing my senses. Continuing past the free weights, I ignored the men staring at us as they lifted.
“Right here.” Niche jogged ahead of me and bounced onto a treadmill. I stepped onto the one next to him, stretching as I tapped at my Common. What was I in the mood for . . . Dirty Code has some good beats. I started a playlist, and met Niche’s eye.
He grinned, hand poised over the start button.
We ramped up our treadmills, and the bass line in my ears drowned out his laughter.
Within a few minutes, my body eased into the exercise. Next to me a masc left his treadmill, shooting me a harsh look as he moved to one farther away from us. Whatever, masc, see if we care. I increased my pace, reveling in the exertion, then Niche did the same to match my full run.
My pale-blue eyes stared back at me from the gym’s mirrored wall. Sweat soon plastered my shirt to my chest. And for the thousandth time I analyzed every inch of myself that I could see—the shape of my jaw, the breadth of my shoulders and rib cage; they mocked me. Five years at the gym and thousands of wattcreds in testosterone in an attempt to bury the origins of my body under muscle. If only that could be enough.
Fatigue caught up to me as I ran. I glanced at Niche, who had already slowed to a walk, a hand on his side. He met my gaze and shrugged. I forced myself onward, mouthing the words that my mind screamed at the mirror. I want to be a masc . . . I want to be a masc . . .
When I hit my goal, I stumbled off the treadmill, panting and running my hands through short brown hair, then flicking sweat off my fingers. I scanned the gym. A few men wore wide smiles as they traveled from one group of machines to the next, their conversation lost to the music in my ears. One masc performed multiple pull-ups on a high bar, and the effortless working of his arms, the serenity of his demeanor, was beautiful. What I wouldn’t give to look like him. What my body wouldn’t give to be under him— No, wrong. I couldn’t think that.
Niche’s hand rested on my shoulder, and I pulled out an earbud. “Weights next?”
I tore my gaze from the glistening muscles of the masc on the high bar. “Yeah.”
We settled at a bench, and I led Niche through our regimen. We lifted, and I focused on breathing steadily, and the comforting strain in my muscles.
A pair of mascs left their machines and started toward us. One of them was Loren, who I had ogled the past several months, his shorts revealing sculpted thighs and calves, his shirt hiding what I knew were perfect abs, the kind I wished I could have. He smirked right at me, malice shaping his cheekbones and sweat spiking his light-brown hair.
“What do we have here?” he said to his comrade. “Two little andros pretending to be men.”
I couldn’t say the same for Niche, but there was nothing little about me. Loren and I were almost the same height and build. I put down the weights and stood.
“Let’s check out the high bars, Niche.”
As I turned from them, Loren grabbed my arm. “Leaving before we get to say hello?”
I tried to pull away but his grip was tight enough that the motion simply stung my skin. His brown eyes pierced mine with a malicious edge never present in my fantasies. This probably wouldn’t end how I had fantasized either.
“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Loren growled, yanking me toward him and grabbing my hips. The other masc laughed as Loren pressed himself against me. “This is how your kind says hello, right?”
Damn it . . . I blamed the hormones when my face flushed, and I stifled a moan. Loren shoved me toward his friend, who twisted one of my arms behind my back before I had gotten my bearings.
“Damn, you should have seen his face!” Loren’s friend exclaimed. “I think he likes you.”
At least he had the decency to call me “he” instead of “it.” For a moment I struggled, and then he wrenched my arm and pain shot through my shoulder. I hissed to keep from shouting.
“Ember!” Niche gasped.
Loren cocked an eyebrow and knocked my forehead with hard knuckles. “What’s wrong with you? Do you think you’re a masc? ’Cause I doubt there’s a dick in those shorts.”
“There could be if you’re inviting yourself,” I quipped.
Loren snarled and pulled back his arm. As he swung, I clenched my abs as hard as I could, and his fist landed square in my tensed gut. Nice try, asshole. Pain blossomed, and I fought my captor’s grip, so he twisted my arm harder.
“Let him go, please!” Niche tried. They ignored him.
“Are you het?” Loren asked, like it was illegal. With reactions like this, it may as well be.
I coughed a laugh. “What difference does it make?”
He punched me again, and again I anticipated his blow, though just barely. He narrowed his eyes and shook out his hand.
Niche let out a whine, then the bastard dashed out of sight.
“Why do you need this guy holding me down?” I challenged. “Don’t think you can beat me in a fair fight?”
Loren’s friend crowed with laughter.
“Know your place and stay in it, andro.” Loren’s fist flew at my face, and my nose exploded with pain.
Loren’s friend shoved me to the floor. As their chuckling receded, I pushed myself up to hands and knees, the green tile speckled bright red.
Letting out a groan, I sat down with shaking limbs. “Niche?”
Hands gripped my shoulders, and I recoiled.
“It’s just me; it’s me,” Niche soothed, helping me up. “They left. Let me get you a towel or something.”
I wiped my nose, smearing red on my arm, and the familiar metallic flavor tainted my taste buds. Loren sure had gotten close to breaking my nose. I breathed slow and deep, trying to brush off the shock.
Niche returned with a small towel, and I cleaned up as well I could.
Then he put a hand on my arm, which I shoved off.
“Why do you act like this?” he asked. “If you keep daydreaming you’re a masc, it’s gonna get you killed.”
Not this again, Niche. Where had my Common gone? Ah, it was under a bench. I retrieved the device and sat down.
“Why do you inject?” I countered.
He shrugged, sitting next to me. “It’s what a Y negative does when he’s finished his damn service for society. Become an andro.”
“Well I don’t inject to be an andro.”
“It’s a daydream, Ember. Sometimes I daydream that I can jog outside and not be fried under acid showers. It’s never gonna happen.”
“Yeah, it’s a daydream. And when I’m living it, you can eat your words.”
Niche let out a sigh and retrieved our gym bags from beside the treadmills. “Let’s hit the showers.”
It was definitely time to rinse off this sweat and blood. We crossed the gym and entered the changing room, then continued past changing and showering mascs. I averted my gaze so my voyeurism wouldn’t start another fight. Once in the andros’ section, Niche tapped his Common on a sensor outside the shower stall, then shed his clothes and got in.
I lingered near the waist-high mirror that ran the length of the changing room. My red, swollen nose looked ridiculous, and my mustache still held flecks of blood. It wasn’t the first time I had seen myself like this, and it probably wouldn’t be the last.
Pulling off my shirt, my lower abdomen jiggled. Like I could ever be fond of my abs when they were obscured with this loose, scarred skin. The jagged silver lightning bolts of stretch marks radiated out from my pubic hair to my belly button, the result of six surrogacies. I resisted the urge to grab the hated skin and twist. Like that would help.
My gaze slipped up my torso, past healed gashes from fights with mascs, to the thick scars that lined the bottom edges of my pectoral muscles, where my breasts had been removed. So much of my body was a disgusting reminder, after I had tried so hard to forget. And when I pushed down my shorts, I looked away; that was a difference I didn’t need to be reminded of.
A tap of my Common paid for my shower, and I soon shivered as the lukewarm water ran down me. The water washed away more than just the grime as the pain in my abdomen eased up and the knots in my muscles loosened. I’d survived another morning. That had to count for something.
My body ached when we returned to the apartment. Niche stepped to his bedroom and I to mine. I pulled the sweaty clothes out of my bag, tossing them on the piles strewn around my unkempt bed. Yeah, I’d get to laundry eventually.
But first, my least favorite part of the day: figuring out what to eat. The cupboards held only a few cans, packages of various grains, and some nutrition supplement I could lay claim to. That was it? Damn it, the in-counter chiller held mostly Niche’s stuff too. I put a bowl of oatmeal in the radiator and peeled an orange as I waited for the oatmeal to heat.
Each orange slice burst with tang, bringing to mind the time Dad had taken me to one of the greenhouses he managed, and I’d gotten to try an orange right off the tree. Seeing the miles of greenhouses, learning that all our food was grown under glass, had been staggering. Now living away from home, and eating an orange that cost five wattcreds, it was impossible to forget. As had been my glimpse past the greenhouses, at the endless dead plains. I couldn’t believe this world had ever been different.
Breakfast in hand, I settled at my desk to start work on a customer’s circuit board. If only business wasn’t so sporadic. There’d been one month where I’d earned ten thousand wattcreds, and had enjoyed the smell of fresh cooked food every night: pasta, lentils, snow peas, potatoes. Lately, I barely managed my six hundred wattcred rent. Thus the supplement to look forward to when what I had left ran out. Ah, the beauty of being self-employed.
I propped the circuit board up in a stand so I could replace outdated components with better ones using a tiny soldering gun. My vision aided by a magnifying glass, I positioned a capacitor with a pair of tweezers, then soldered its connections. As it set, I shoveled down oatmeal, bland without expensive honey.
A few more components and connections later, that project was completed. I tapped at my keyboard and donned my earpiece, then left the customer a message, cringing at the sweetness in my voice. Okay, on to the next job.
Rubbing my nose, I sat back in my chair, recalling the day with a hesitant chuckle. I shut my eyes, and memories of the mascs at the gym flashed. It didn’t matter how much I was beaten down, did it? I was still attracted to them.
I shifted in my chair, and fought off a wave of arousal with a slow exhalation. My body itched for the confidence and energy that followed a testosterone injection, which mascs probably felt all the time.
But not me, since I got to be part of the lucky fifth of our population who lacked the Y-gene cluster on either of our X chromosomes. Every time I heard the word “andro” it reminded me that I was pretending, like Niche had said—daydreaming I was a masc. But this wasn’t pretend for me. It was the life I wanted to lead.
There was a knock at my front door, and I rose to answer it.
“Mr. Johnson, how are you?” I said as cheerfully as I could stand.
He was about six inches shorter than me, sporting a gray wrap and a shaved head. “Is my console ready?”
Some small talk. I retrieved it from my desk: a newer Askeron 2200M, a shiny silver box that fit in the palm of my hand.
“It’s now overclocked and with an advanced heat sink. You’ll be pleased to see its performance rivaling a 4400.”
A lump formed in my throat as I waited for him to pay me. He finally reached for his pocket, and my shoulders relaxed. “Three hundred, yes?”
“Three hundred fifty,” I corrected.
He frowned. “All I have in my account is three hundred wattcreds.”
I hid my sudden anger. “I’m—I’m sorry? We agreed on three fifty.”
Mr. Johnson stared up at me and slowly crossed his arms. I knew this game. Father played it. He had taught me to lose.
My muscles tensed. I could beat the shit of out you. With a breath, I strained to keep my face calm. I couldn’t afford to lose future business. “Oh . . . all right. Three hundred.” I handed him the console, and he stuffed it in his pocket.
He held out his Common, and I changed his invoice fee on my own device and scanned his screen. Our Commons chimed.
He mumbled a farewell, and I shut the door, my hand on the doorknob white-knuckled. I thrust my Common back into my pocket. Three hundred . . . the bastard. That hardly gave me a profit over the cost of the upgrades.
“Did you get ripped off again?” Niche called.
“You’re too polite! Get some balls, eh?”
Niche knew just what would cheer me up. “I’ll have you know I almost have enough for rent.” I settled at my desk, considering the profits for my current jobs. “Yeah. I only need another two hundred wattcreds after getting my next shot.” I rubbed the crook of my arm, an almost unconscious caress.
One of those days, indeed. Wanting to purge masc injustice from my mind, I got back to work.
The week crawled by, and sleep proved to be difficult with my shoulders aching. My nose bruised nicely, making my customers double take. Too few customers. As the week drew to a close, I wished I had an extra day. For that much more income, for a chance to have extra creds for food. Most of it would be going to the injection I was about to buy. Things usually weren’t quite this bad, but all the small jobs I’d had lately didn’t add up to enough.
“Did you make it?” Niche was sitting on the couch with a bowl of popped corn, watching a televid playing on a monitor in the living room.
“Yeah, I get to eat steroids this week.” At least he laughed. I left the apartment, and took the inner hallways through the buildings on my street, still not wanting to brave the weather. A business outlet resided a few blocks away: past the gym, through two more apartment complexes, a ninety-degree turn into the grocery store, my eyes to the floor the entire time. Finally, I entered the two-story mall. Through the skylights, the sun shone dull yellow, obscured by light-brown clouds. Men traveled the walkway; some moved with the speed of imminent business, sashes or robes flowing in their wake, and others took their time. A few were tailed by younger children, whose fates as Y negative or male were indeterminable at that age.
My destination was FitStop, an outlet that advertised vitamins, supplements, and various accessories for the gym regulars. I’d never been able to afford testosterone from a doctor, so here I was, shopping under the counter like most andros. I trusted this shop to be clean, though. They hadn’t proven me wrong thus far.
A short, buff masc named Glen idled at the counter, and he greeted me with a nod.
“The usual,” I said.
“You sure I couldn’t interest you in a deluxe cocktail this week?” He had been pushing this on me more often lately. As far as I was concerned, the word “cocktail” shouldn’t apply to a testosterone injection, even if the stuff was synthetic. I shrugged off his words, and snatched the thumb-sized vial off the counter.
“Don’t forget to tell your little andro friends about me. You know my shit works just like you want it.”
I faked a laugh, nodding in agreement and farewell. He always threw that closing pitch at me, probably due to the few times Niche and I had come in here together. But Niche was the only andro I could stand to be around. There wasn’t another Y negative out there that hadn’t been ridiculed into forced mental oblivion. They were all dumb and horny and fake. Of course, that included myself.
Right now, however, I was itching for my injection. I returned to the apartment and shut myself in my bedroom with shaking hands. Unlike the surrogacy hormones, which had been injected into my thighs, this stuff was intravenous. That was one advantage of synthetic hormones, at least. I liked that shooting up didn’t make me as sore as those shots had—completely worth the steeper learning curve.
After giving my needle a sterilizing flush, I slipped a rubber strap up my arm and tightened it above my elbow, then drew up the vial’s amber contents. I bit my lip to keep myself from trembling as I eased the needle’s tip under my skin and pulled gently on the plunger to test my placement. Satisfied, I pushed in the plunger, releasing my breath through my teeth as I imagined the steroid pumping through my bloodstream.
My mind calmed as I sharpened the needle before putting it back in its canvas bag, all the while my legs bouncing as shivers shot up and down my spine. These reactions were still psychological at this point, but I didn’t care. The drug would do its job, and that’s what mattered.
A few minutes later, I emerged from my bedroom and searched through the cabinets for some sort of dinner. Niche’s, Niche’s, ugh.
“Hey,” Niche greeted. He had changed outfits, now wearing new pants that tied up the sides, the fabric imprinted with a faint yellow hexagon pattern.
“You going out tonight?”
He tapped at his Common with one hand and played with the strings on his hip with the other. “Probably. Zell wants to hang.”
At least he wasn’t bringing his boyfriend back here. The walls were too thin for that. I stared at the floor, and then idiotically opened my mouth.
“Do you . . . think I could borrow a can of—”
“No.” He peered at me from the middle of the living room. “You never pay me back for whatever food you take.”
“Come on, man, I haven’t had a big gig in weeks. I’m looking at two days, maybe three before I have enough . . .”
“Absolutely not.” He grabbed a black jacket off of the couch. “Don’t make me label everything and keep count. You’re the one who chose to eat steroids this week.”
I went to respond, and then the first flames hit me, a blossom of pleasure and light-headedness. I gripped the counter and released my breath in a controlled hiss.
“Looks like you already ate.” Niche pulled on his jacket, walking past me.
“Like you’d ever be late shooting up.”
He paused at the door, and his expression hinted at pity. “No, I can’t say I would. Every week on the dot. I’ve never missed a single one.”
“Then you see where I’m at here.”
He sighed. “Don’t touch my stuff, Ember. I’m sorry.”
The front door closed, and then the flames licked through me, adding desire to the hunger.
I satiated the latter with a glass of supplement, then settled at my desk, pinching the skin of my arm while the flames erupted into a blaze within me. So I had to live off supplement? This was worth it. I ran my hand down my arm, the tingling contact making me shudder.
This called for some music. Soon the punchy sounds of Aperture Riot hit my senses, and I mentally pushed aside the shit in my life. Asshole clients, mascs, injustice, all easily ignored so I could enjoy my weekly rush. I savored this feeling: the power, the churning confidence. This was what it felt like to be a masc. This was what I spent my creds on, even if the rush only lasted an hour. A smile curled my lips as I unbuttoned my pants and hair tickled my fingertips. The steroids hadn’t helped my pseudo that much. But I could still get off just fine.
Reality hit me early the next morning with the growling of my stomach. I lasted through the morning’s gym run, repair projects, and halfway through my client calls before I slammed down my headset, marched into the kitchen, and stared at Niche’s food in the cabinet. He was at work. Would he really notice if something went missing?
I picked up an apple, heavy and shiny, its skin swirling red and green. Would he really notice . . .?
Damn it, this was embarrassing. But a few more days without a solid meal would start to wreck my build. There was an easy way to prevent the muscle loss, though arguably, it would be far more embarrassing than stealing my roommate’s food.
A groan escaped me. “I could call my parents.”
I could already hear Father’s harsh lecturing . . . but if enduring it resulted in enough wattcreds to last me a few weeks, it was worth it, right? I paced with arms across my chest, my breathing deep. It was worth it. Or maybe Niche could— No. Just call them.
So I did. And then Father insisted on talking to me in person, and Dad decided he’d make an elaborate dinner as it had been so long since I had visited. This was a mistake. A horrible, futile . . . but fuck if Dad wasn’t a good cook.
After rushing through the rest of my client calls, I changed into cleaner clothes: a blue tank with the silver pattern of circuitry decaled on it, dark-silver pants with black stitching and a black drawstring in front. The old clubbing outfit looked much newer than the rest of my wardrobe.
Out in the apartment complex entryway, I eyed the hazy sun through the front door’s windows. I zipped up my jacket and entered the muggy atmosphere, an uncomfortably hot breeze rustling my hair.
With a swipe of my Common, the last of my wattcreds went on the bus fare to get within running distance of my parents’ neighborhood. The crowded bus was standing-room only, with a disproportionate number of andros accompanying me on the ride. If we were paid better, we’d have vehicles; damn how I’d love to have my own car. I could do house-call repairs, and just thinking of the income made me angry.
Half an hour later, I stepped off the bus and jogged down the street, suppressing the instinct to choke out the thick, wet air I forced into my lungs. The dull turquoise sky gave me some comfort though: no rain clouds. Familiar locales summoned memories that tightened my chest. There’s where I punched my first masc, at the age of seven. His friends threw me into that storm ditch around the corner. And there’s the steps of the middle school, where my friend Jacquel tried to kiss me. I had been eleven, already confused and frustrated.
I turned down my parents’ block, slowing to a walk. The houses where my elementary school friends used to live came and went, though now with a lack of toys tucked under the front porch. It had been only a year and a half since I had visited, but these memories were like opening old wounds. I approached my old house—two stories of acid-etched metal with a solar panel roof—and knocked on the door.
My younger brother Steph answered. He smiled and beckoned me in as he caressed his swollen abdomen, his pale-green shirt stretched tight. The doctors were going to confine him to a hospital wing any day now. The sight of that round belly tied my gut in knots.
The house hadn’t changed—still the same narrow hallway, the dull metal walls with their peach hue. The doorway to the living room revealed the same yellow-brown couch and a newer, larger monitor. I realized I hadn’t yet said hello.
“Your hair’s getting long,” I said. His brown hair, a few shades lighter than mine, was almost to his eyes, and shaggy in the back. Why did Father let him wear it so long? Probably Dad had insisted he wear it as he wanted.
“You . . . you look great,” Steph said, and I sensed envy in his voice. Now that Sable was done with his surrogacies and had started injecting, Steph was the only pure Y negative in the family. He still had to deal with our youngest brother, Valence, a genetic male, as a constant, mocking reminder of what he could have been. I was damn thankful I got out of the house before Valence got older. I wouldn’t have been able to take it. Hopefully he wouldn’t be here tonight.
“Ember.” Dad came into view down the hall. He wore a simple tank and pants in muted beige, along with a gentle smile. “Look at you. Business doesn’t seem that bad.”
I returned the smile, but muttered, “It is.”
“Come in, sit down. It’s so good to see you.” Dad ushered me into the living room, and I eyed a platter of mixed veggies, crackers, and dip on the side table. Steph plucked a carrot from the platter and crunched down.
I chose a broccoli floret, smothering it in tan, creamy dip, and popped it in my mouth as casually as I could. Ohhh, the earthy flavor of hummus.
Dad joined me on the couch. “Tell me, how is everything? You were distraught when you called.”
I swallowed down a cracker. “Well, it’s like I said—”
Father joined us from the kitchen. “You’ve come begging to us?” He wore a red patterned shirt over dark-gray slacks, large boots clunking with his gait. His hair was much grayer than the last time I had seen him.
He scanned me, and I stood as he approached, inclining my head to meet his gaze. Looking him in the eyes was the only way my brothers and I had learned to satisfy his desire for our attention.
“You haven’t visited in almost two years,” Father said. “You say your self-employment isn’t as fruitful as you had hoped.”
“Alex, please,” Dad tried, still on the couch. Steph took a few delicacies from the platter and retreated, watching from the kitchen doorway.
Father exhaled and continued. “Yet your desire for assistance has a fundamental flaw.”
I narrowed my eyes, unsure where he was going with this.
“I wouldn’t dream of helping you when you’re using as heavily as you are.”
My jaw dropped. “You think I’m trying to spike? I’m not stupid enough to get hospitalized!”
“Yeah? I’d like to see a regular andro get muscle like that.”
This was about as close to a compliment as I would ever receive from my father. But his intent was not kind.
“Muscle like this is from hard work, Father. Hours a day. I’m not spiking.”
“That’s hours a day you could be spending with your business!” he countered. “Or better yet, getting a real job with a steady income!”
“I’d like you to show me a company that will give a Y negative the same wage as a masc,” I said, breaking eye contact to glance at Dad and Steph. Dad was shaking his head but remained silent. Steph simply clutched his abdomen and stared at the floor. Like they usually did when Father got like this.
“And you think being self-employed fixes that? I’m shocked you get business at all.”
“The quality of my work tends to override the mutation of my chromosomes.”
“Clearly not enough.”
Dad must have seen my lips curl into a snarl, and finally intervened. “He’s not here to be patronized.”
Father threw his hands up and turned away from me, and Dad cleared his throat.
“Let’s just have a nice dinner and then we can continue discussing this tonight, okay?”
Father didn’t respond. He strode past us to the hall, and ascended the stairs.
Dad exhaled and stood, smoothing out his shirt. “I’m going to finish dinner. Ten more minutes.”
As he left, I collapsed onto the couch, and Steph sat next to me. I stuck another floret in my mouth.
“This was a mistake,” I mumbled.
“Dad’s so happy you’re here though; he hasn’t stopped talking about you since you called.”
“So he’s been inadvertently riling Father up all day.”
I laughed, and Steph grinned for a moment before he scrunched his face and put a hand on his abdomen.
“Big kick?” I asked. He nodded. “How far along are you?”
“Eight and a half months.”
The memories came over me too suddenly to stop them: The hospital rooms, the blinding pain, the exertion, exhaustion. The infant’s cries before it was ushered out the door to masc parents. The hormone injections to ready my body for the next implantation. The ache in my gut, where something was lost that I could never get back.
“But this is my last one!” Steph added.
I made myself smile. “Then the fun really starts.”
“Dinner, boys!” Dad called, just like when I had lived here. Steph and I meandered into the kitchen, and I was greeted with familiar polished metal countertops and dark alloy cabinets. The school art on the wall around the table was gone, replaced with designs painted on strips of fabric. Then someone bounded down the stairs.
“What the fuck, Ember’s here.”
And there was Valence, an inch taller than me and with a face like Father’s when he was young. A real masc, with wide shoulders and a full beard.
“Duh, where have you been all day?” Steph lamented, getting a plate off the counter.
Valence approached and squeezed my bicep. “Nice.”
I glared at him. “I thought you went to college.”
“He comes home some nights because he can’t cook for shit,” Steph declared. I got in line behind him to fill my plate with flatbread, beans, and sautéed bell peppers and tomatoes. My first well-rounded meal in weeks.
“Steph, don’t swear.” Dad sat at the kitchen table, which held the same handblown glass vase it had always carried.
“You didn’t tell Val not to swear, and he’s younger!”
Dad hummed innocently, and Steph and I joined him at the table. Valence soon followed.
“Father’s shut in his office,” Valence announced, casting a sideways glance at me. “He that mad at you already?”
“I’m just that good at getting him mad.” I picked up my precariously filled flatbread and took as large a bite as I could manage. The flavors exploded on my taste buds—hearty earth, bitter plant, smooth and salty and seasoned—a moan buzzed my shut mouth. Steph giggled.
“You’re acting like you haven’t eaten in a week.”
I took another bite, succumbing to caloric ecstasy again.
“A week, Ember?” Dad asked.
Valence chuckled. “He’s a supplement-chugging andro, what do you think he can actually afford after shooting up?”
Dad dropped his silverware with a clatter. “Valence!”
I bit my tongue and tensed.
“That’s the problem isn’t it?” We all stopped and turned toward the voice as Father entered the kitchen. “What he can afford. Isn’t that right, Devin?”
Dad cleared his throat. “Your father—and, well, your brother—has a point.”
I stammered into action, eyeing the rest of the dinner on my plate. “The issue is not affordability, it’s the economy. If I get the kind of business I used to—”
“Ember,” Dad cut in, “have you considered decreasing your usage? At least until your business picks back up?”
My shock at Dad’s words escalated to anger when he gave Father a shrug.
“Do you think using is a luxury? Like owning a car? Do you truly believe I should let my entire identity erode because of a slump in business?”
“It was just a suggestion,” Dad pleaded.
“It’s not an option. You both have no idea how hard it is to live as an andro, let alone a Y negative.” I gestured to Steph. “Yet you fucking raised three of us. I can’t believe you’ve kept yourselves so blind to what we endure.”
“Oh, you think it was clear skies the whole time we raised you?” Father snarled, and Dad gasped. “Driving you to doctors’ visits constantly? Dealing with your mood swings?”
Valence sat back in his chair, watching the show with a smile on his face. I forced myself to look away from him, and met Father’s eyes. “Don’t you fucking dare.”
“Alex, stop it,” Dad demanded as I spoke, but Father wouldn’t be deterred.
“I know what you’re going to say, Ember. How about the wattcreds we were paid to compensate for having negatives? It all went right back into caring for you. And you—what about the compensation for your surrogacies? Where is that? Straight into your veins the moment you left home?”
My throat seized as I struggled to respond. Dad stood and glared at Father, his pale eyes fiercer than I had ever seen them. “You told me our discussion would remain civilized tonight. How is this at all civilized?”
“He’s a grown man and should be able to support himself! You think my father ever would have helped me? So why should I help him?”
“You know damn well why,” Dad said through clenched teeth. I couldn’t believe this. Was he suggesting they help me merely because I was Y negative?
“Do you want to know why I’m not helping you?” Father returned his attention to me. “Because you aren’t willing to make sacrifices. If you can’t support your alternative lifestyle, you have to give it up.”
“Alternative! Fuck! You make it sound like I have a choice. I didn’t have a choice about that”—I thrust a finger at Steph’s belly—“so I don’t have a choice about this.” I held out my arms.
“Anyone would be honored to help mankind as you have,” Dad said.
I shook my head, trying not to let out the desperate laughter within me. “Don’t give me that surrogacy propaganda crap. No one would choose to be Y negative! And you two are walking evidence no one wants to bear one—you kept having kids until your genes gave you a male!”
Valence coughed a laugh, then gave me a smug look. Just two steps and I could punch him in the face. Two steps . . .
“Ember, that’s not true,” Dad insisted, but his heart clearly wasn’t behind his words.
I released a sigh and glanced at Steph, who sat quietly, like the good little Y negative he was expected to be. “Have they not stopped acting like this?” I asked. He nodded, his cheeks flushing. “Fuck, I’m not dealing with this.”
I shoved the rest of my dinner down and strode toward the front door still chewing. After I pulled on my jacket, Dad put a hand on my shoulder.
“I’m going home,” I said, more harshly than I meant to.
“If you truly need the wattcreds, I’ll transfer them to you.”
“Forget it, Dad.”
“I’m serious. Do you need a thousand?”
I shut my eyes. After all that, I couldn’t request so much from them. “I can scrape by with a hundred.” Given the income from my current projects, I was short that much from making rent and getting my next injection. It wouldn’t be planning ahead. I’d need some good business, or supplement would continue to sustain me.
I opened my eyes to Dad tapping at his Common. Mine chimed.
“I love you, Ember.”
Mumbling a reply, I pushed the door open, stepping out into warm twilight.
The “good business” remained beyond my reach over the next few weeks. At the mercy of the ebb and flow of the market, I barely kept up. With my work hours dwindling, I spent long sessions at the gym, running out my frustrations, cursing at my reflection, and burning calories I couldn’t replace. I drank down chalky supplement, glass after glass, but it only took the edge off the hunger. Niche noticed the difference in me as my mentality worsened, and he grew even more distant than usual. I kept myself from stealing his food. Call it stubborn pride.
The afternoon before I was due to inject, my console beeped that I had an incoming call. I greeted the client with far too much excitement.
“Uh, hello . . .” the customer responded. “I’m looking to upgrade my hard drive to a point six?”
“No problem, bring your console over and I’ll have it done in a day. That’ll run you two fifty.”
The customer grunted. “I’m pretty sure I’d only be spending one fifty at the Tronic downtown.”
Yes, because he’d have to install it himself and would be buying a used part. Fucking Tronic, making me have to cut prices. But that was the name of the game. The fear I thought had vanished when my phone rang rattled in my empty gut. “How about I make you a deal: two-hundred wattcreds. You know Tronic would charge you more than that to install it too.”
The customer hummed. “You’re quite right.”
“What’s your name?”
“Kat Sanders. That’s Kat with a K. I’ll be over soon.”
I hung up and buried my face in my hands. By the time someone knocked at my door, I hadn’t moved. Niche had just walked into the kitchen, and he leaned on the counter to watch.
I donned my fake smile and pulled myself to my feet. You can get through this, just keep smiling.
As I scanned the man standing in the doorway, I raised my eyebrows. He was an andro, wearing a purple, loose-fitting robe that cinched at the waist, which emphasized wide hips and skinny arms. His jaw was even less angled than mine, and he either couldn’t or didn’t want to grow a beard to hide it. He looked me over, the same air of surprise gracing his features.
Perhaps our common origin would allow him some compassion when paying me.
“You called about your hard drive?”
His eyes snapped back to my face, and he nodded, procuring his computer from a shoulder bag. “Can you have it ready by tomorrow evening?”
“Of course. I’ll need fifty as a deposit.” He frowned briefly, but then paid me.
“Until tomorrow.” He nodded again in farewell. I spent an extra moment watching him walk away, his hips swaying in that characteristic Y-negative fashion.
“Well that’s good at least,” Niche announced, and I shut the door and met his eyes.
“No, he likes you.”
I shook my head and laughed. Niche stepped up to me, his arms crossed.
“You would feel better if you went out with him.”
“How many times do I have to tell you I’m het?”
“Don’t be absurd,” he said. “The sooner you give up on that nonsense, the happier you’ll be in life.”
A hissed retort gurgled in my throat, but then I thought about it. “Okay, want to make a bet out of this?”
He narrowed his eyes at me, but a smile tugged at his mouth.
“Pay for my next injection,” I said. “He asks me on a date, I pay you back and go out with him. He doesn’t, I don’t.”
“That’s a lot of creds. I’ll only agree if you actually go out with him if he asks—no backing down, got it?”
“I’ll go, I swear.” Ugh, what was I getting myself into?
Niche pulled out his Common, and tapped at it for a moment, then mine chimed.
“You couldn’t afford your next injection, huh?”
“Not until after the andro pays me.” I glanced at my Common—he had transferred a hundred and fifty wattcreds into my account. The creds were beautiful, sitting there. Too bad they weren’t really mine.
He sighed, scrolling through his Common. “You’ve been miserable for weeks. Don’t think I haven’t noticed. I hope you have some damned fun.”
“Yeah, fun,” I murmured, as Niche sauntered into the living room.
The idea of going out with an andro made my skin crawl. But it wasn’t like I hadn’t before. It wasn’t like I couldn’t again. As long as I was high enough to forget the truth.
Well, I had some shopping to do. After a short jog past the mall, I entered a wholesale electronics distributor and approached Trace, a younger salesman who was a bit shorter than me, the bright yellow sash across his chest awkward on his thin frame. Our common professions had allowed a tentative friendship to form over the years. He noticed me and started to smile, but the smile faltered.
“Hey, Trace,” I said, stopping at his counter and propping my elbows on it.
“You got an order for me?” he said blandly, and I hesitated at his distant demeanor. Why did I try being friends with an exin when his mood swings were just as bad as a Y negative’s? Exins might be lucky enough to have the Y genes, but they were screwed over by faulty X chromosome inactivation. Maybe his mood today was a result of that.
“Just a point six hard drive,” I responded. “Business has been slow.”
“Sorry to hear that.” He checked the shelving behind him and brought me a small box. I passed my Common over the scanner, leaving just Niche’s creds in my account. Trace sighed and broke eye contact. He shifted from foot to foot, and finally I gave in.
“Hey, are you all right?” I asked, my voice low.
Trace shook his head, staring at the counter between us. “I’m fine, it’s just been a rough week.”
“Anything you want to talk about?”
He met my gaze. “Next time, Ember. You have a good day.”
With a shrug, I left the shop. Exins often didn’t like talking about their condition, especially if it was bad enough that they had to shoot up. “Take care of yourself.”
I headed across the mall to get my steroids, my mood tainted by Trace’s. Niche’s words echoed back: being het was nonsense. Yeah, I had gotten enough black eyes and bruised ribs to prove that true. But I’d also sucked enough dicks to know it wasn’t unanimous. I wasn’t alone.
Maybe one day even I’d believe that.
When the andro came to retrieve his computer, I knew Niche had been right. Kat wore a tank and pants in shades of neon purple and green, similar colors painted on his cheeks in a swirling pattern.
“Your name’s Ember?” he asked as I retrieved his console.
“Yeah.” I handed it off and shoved my hands in my pockets to hide the shakes of craving an injection.
He stuck the console in his shoulder bag, then held out his Common without any hesitation.
“Thank you for the speedy service,” he said. “And . . . I’d enjoy the company if you wanted to join me tonight.”
And there it was. I tapped my Common to his. He smiled, and my hand shook.
“Okay, sure.” I shrugged, trying to act normal. If I only knew what normal was.
“Great,” Kat said with a laugh. “I can give you some time to change, or whatever.”
“Yeah. And shoot up.”
Kat walked into the apartment and set his bag by my desk. He let out a satisfied grunt. “Nice. Sorry I’m not synched, I shot up a few days ago.”
“It’s all right.” I stepped into my room. It had been so long since I had gone out that I’d forgotten that andros purposely injected on the same day. Changing into the same outfit I had worn to my parents, I wished Niche’s creds farewell as I slipped the needle into my arm.
Kat was sitting on my desk, absorbed in his Common when I returned to the living room.
“Sorry, I’m out of paint.”
Kat tilted his head to the side. “Really? That’s too bad.”
He beckoned me to follow him out, and then Niche’s bedroom door cracked open.
“Borrow mine, you idiot. And I better see those creds tomorrow morning.”
Damn thin walls. I shrugged at Kat and strode into the bathroom, and procured jars of blue, silver, and pale green.
Steadying a shaking hand, I emulated the circuit pattern on my shirt. I jumped when Kat’s hand slipped across my back to grip my waist. He watched me paint, tugging playfully at the tie under my navel. It took everything in my power to not bat his hands away. The sooner I snorted myself into orbit, the better.
Parallel streaks of silver flowed from my forehead to my beard on a background of green, and I finished the look with blue accents: lips, eyes, and artistically placed dots amid the silver tracks. I shut the jars, and went to wash out the brush, but Kat took it from my hand and stuck it in his mouth, pulling it out slowly. The heat within me awakened with his deliberate motion.
“Mmm, blueberry. Don’t ever waste good paint.”
A smile teased my lips, and I wrapped the tie on his hip around my fingers. Maybe I’d manage to enjoy this after all? Let my imagination reign?
“Almost forgot.” I ducked away from him, grabbed a bag from my room, and stuck in it my jacket pocket. “Ready to go?”
We boarded a bus heading downtown, and I tried to ignore the hungry looks from other andros. Fifteen minutes later I followed him off the bus, the flames within me just beginning to dance.
Crossing a few city blocks brought us to a large club called Top Floor, which, as its name suggested, took up the entire top story of a business complex. There was an impressive line outside for it being a Tuesday night. Mostly andros, though there were scattered groups of mascs as well. The styles had changed since the last time I went to a club—andros were adorned in translucent shirts, or strapless tanks to show off their shoulders, or with shimmering scarves tied around their waists that flowed as they walked. Some had exposed legs, with shoes that laced to their knees. A group of mascs ahead of us were shirtless but for what looked to be harnesses on their shoulders: black straps and metal rings across their backs and chests. I stared at them as burning swept through my body.
Stop, stop, wrong, wrong, wrong . . . I tore my gaze from the mascs and focused on Kat. His blond mustache stuck out oddly against the neon-green paint on his face. I met his eyes, and forced a small smile.
A few minutes into my full testosterone rush, we entered the club. I didn’t recognize the song that was playing, but I could enjoy it. Lights twirled across the people and walls in a myriad of bright colors, reflecting off the metal again and again so that the whole room sparkled.
“Do you want to dance?” Kat asked.
“Yeah, sure.” I let him lead me onto the dance floor. For the song’s duration, I moved my hips and gave Kat random smiles while the crowd pulsed with the beat, some men in groups forming undulating circles, and other men in pairs, sharing body heat as they danced.
As we danced, I scanned the crowd for any sign of a het pair. Though it was difficult to distinguish features in this atmosphere, clothing cues suggested the search was futile. In years past I had witnessed the odd het couple, who were more often than not the subjects of verbal or physical abuse. My own few experiences had been in private booths, roughhoused and belittled as I sucked their fetishes right out of them. Fury bubbled up within me, and I clenched my fists tightly. Why the fuck was I here? What had I hoped to gain from this?
And then Kat’s palm slipped to my back as he leaned in and licked the edges of paint underneath my jaw, his wet tongue making me weak. My body didn’t care what gender was pressed against me; it wanted contact. And I wanted oblivion.
“Where can we get some J-seven?” I ran my hands down his sides.
We cut through the pulsating crowd, heading toward the club’s back wall, which was lined with black doors. He knocked on one, and the door opened.
We stepped inside a room with a low metal table in the center, dark-blue couches around the table and against the walls. This was a premium booth. Wow, he must have well-off friends. Several groups and couples already lounged, sitting around the table, lying on couches. Some of them waved to Kat, calling out his name.
When the booth’s door shut, the deafening thumping of the club quieted noticeably, and the music became more audible through the room’s own speakers. Among the crowd at the table, tiny glints of light caught my eye, and the burning within me kicked up a notch.
Kat led me to the table and pushed me onto a couch between talking, laughing andros. He spoke to one of them, and their Commons touched before the man handed him a small bag. Then Kat knelt by me and raised an eyebrow as he met my gaze.
“Are you going to give as much as you take?”
My response, so foreign to my desires, came too quickly. “Eagerly.”
And there I was, trading sex for drugs again. Like I had years back when my shitty income left me horny and desperate outside of clubs I couldn’t afford to get into on my own.
He poured me a line and handed me a thin glass tube, which glowed faintly under the black light. I bent over the tube and inhaled deeply. A sharp stinging like acid erupted in my sinuses, and I gagged. So out of practice . . .
He giggled and followed suit, then sat on my lap.
The flames flickered up my abdomen as he talked and laughed with his friends. My skin went tingly and numb as the J-seven kicked in, and I spread my legs enough for him to settle between them. He leaned back onto my chest and chatted to his friends like I wasn’t even there. What did that mean? I couldn’t even reason it out, I was so overwhelmed by his contact. He was so . . . calm. Relaxed, lying against me. And here I was, a trembling mess.
Like with like. It came so natural to him that I was jealous. I wanted to enjoy him. I wanted to be like him, oblivious and happy with the normal order of things. I could have a boyfriend in a heartbeat, a lover in a moment, effortless as the sound of fabric on skin. My fingertips touched his abdomen as I breathed in the sweet fragrance of his face paint.
I want to be normal, I want to be normal . . . fuck mascs—I continued to lie to myself as the drugs and the fire mingled into pulses of desire and memory and sensation. Licking paint off of andros in dark booths all over Atlanta, when I was new to the testosterone and exploring my freedom; I’d forget what those andros were until I’d pass my hands over soft stomachs and between legs and feel myself. I had known it wasn’t what I wanted. But their own hands would travel and fingers would penetrate wet flesh, and I’d be too high to care.
I pulled Kat closer with the firm grip of my hand below his navel. My tongue started right below his ear, sweet plums and tangy grapes teasing my taste buds as his conversation waned and he rubbed my outer thighs.
“Sorry guys . . .” he said, his voice fuzzy beneath my inebriation and the buzzing of the music. “Give us an hour . . . maybe two . . .”
With a surge of adrenaline, I sat up and shoved Kat against the couch. He shuddered beneath my hands, and as I kissed him he arched his back and pulled me toward him with eagerness I hadn’t experienced since my last time in a club. Eventually, I let him catch his breath while I licked his cheeks, his eyelids. He moaned and the sound both startled me and urged me on.
“Kat . . .” I whispered. He looked up from my onslaught and met my gaze with half-shut eyes. “I have a bit of a fetish.”
“Uh . . .” I smiled. “You happen to be a boy who will . . . take it?”
He shivered beneath me and gave me a smile. We snorted another set of lines, and then he led me away from the group. Through blurry vision I noticed other andro pairs scattered around the booth. None of them had removed clothing, but there were unbuttoned flies here and pushed-up shirts there. I’d say I had missed this, but it would clearly be the drugs and my arousal talking.
Kat gestured at a vacant couch, and I took a seat. He straddled me and eased my index finger through a loop of the tie on his pants. I yanked it loose. As it unraveled, I wasn’t surprised when the lacework curled between his thighs, stopping far enough up his backside for him to spread his legs unhindered once I pulled the cord through its holes. Dark hair only partly obscured a dainty pseudo and folds of skin. The sight didn’t necessarily turn me on, but I would make it work. He slipped off of me and lay back on the couch, so I went with him. The lingering paint in my mouth sweetened the taste of him as I listened to his soft moans, and after a few moments of him playing with my hair, I sat up and searched my pockets. I plopped a strap-on onto his chest, and he exhaled. The toy sported only a moderately sized member, but andros usually couldn’t handle much more.
“You were serious!” he breathed. I simply smiled. Next best thing, right? I got onto my knees on the floor, and Kat sat in front of me.
“Go easy on me?” he asked, his anticipation or the drug making his tone erratic. “I haven’t done this very often, I don’t know how well I’d—” I shut him up with my mouth against his, and simultaneously I unlaced my pants.
The moment I got the toy in place, excitement pulsed through me. I flipped a switch, and the vibrator’s buzzing was immediately lost to the booth’s music, though the sensation tickled down my thighs and all through my abdomen. He wrapped his legs around my waist, and as I pushed the toy into him, he let out a startled cry. I eased deeper, pulling his hips toward me.
I kept my pace slow, the vibrations making me shiver with each movement. Thrusting my pelvis against his thighs, feeling the warmth of his body, greatly pleased some carnal part of me. The part of me that yearned so badly to feel like a masc, to be a masc. But as the J-seven high swirled and faded, Kat’s groaning and occasional swears fueled the self-hatred writhing in my core. There was no enjoyment in my motion, no connection between the arousal and my mind. I didn’t care about the andro beneath me, and he didn’t care about me either. This was just bodily pleasure covering up the hollow ache.
Regardless, I continued. Soon Kat switched from scratching down my arms and under my shirt to rubbing his pseudo in time with my motion. After a few more minutes, he grabbed a fistful of my shirt and yanked me down. I panted into the crook of his neck while his staccato voice buzzed in my ear. I kept up my pace, riding that sweet edge of oblivion until his legs squeezed my waist and his free hand dug nails into my shoulder, clenching in time with his excited swears, his body’s tremors. When his throes subsided, he sucked in a breath and gave me a wide smile.
Dizziness muddled my return gesture, and I flopped next to Kat and struggled to unclasp the strap-on’s buckles. He grasped my hands, placed them at my sides, then finished removing the toy before shimmying my pants farther down my thighs. I caught a silly grin on his face as he stooped low enough for me to feel his breath between my legs. His slick tongue twirled against me, and I lost it within moments. My head slammed into the couch’s back. I pulled his hair, I screeched.
After I calmed, he lifted his head and laughed. “Ah, a screamer.” His thumbs traced small circles on my inner thighs. “That was too fast. Think I can squeeze another one out of you?”
I growled and shoved his head back down.
“Ember, you wanna go to the gym?”
I blinked, my head throbbing. Damn it, not a hangover. After lurching out of bed, I stumbled to my door. “Yeah, lemme get dressed . . .”
“Hungover?” Niche smiled at me.
I rubbed my eyes. “Yeah.” I fumbled for my gym shorts and running shoes.
“You must have had fun; you didn’t even give him the chance to lick you clean.”
I emerged from my room and turned into the bathroom. Half of my face was a greenish hue with smudges of navy. Some of Kat’s purple was smeared around my mouth too. I dampened a towel and washed the paint off. If only I could wash away the memories too.
“Well? Good time?”
I shrugged, heading toward the kitchen to try to cure my headache with a glass of supplement. “I guess. Good sex, mostly.”
“You’re not even going to try to get to know the guy?”
I rolled my eyes at him.
“I swear, you’ve had more one-night stands since I’ve known you than I’ve had dates my whole life.”
I finished my glass. “Never more than a stand.”
“And whose fault is that?”
We stepped down the hall. Mascs’ faults, for not wanting me. The world’s fault, for making them feel that way. My fault for getting off on denial and boring myself deeper into this hole.
I couldn’t do this to myself again. I couldn’t give in to temptation just to hate the consequences. But at the same time, I couldn’t keep on under the pressure, with a fruitless job and empty gut. A vacant bed and heart.
What choices did I have here? How could I keep pushing forward when everything remained the same?
This was the last gift Dad would ever give me: a cup of water in my hand—distilled water from his now-cremated body. My brothers whispered to each other as Uncle Cal spoke to the gathering. Father, my brothers, my uncles and cousins, all held identical delicate cups. The rest of Dad’s reclaimed water would flow to the edges of Kansas City to water the crops.
I had thought I could handle all this, but knowing he would reenter the system, help our world grow, got to me. I blinked back tears. Why did you have to leave us? Father doesn’t understand half your research; he hardly cares enough to understand me. Heath squeezed my waist, and I leaned against him.
Uncle Cal gazed at the cremation chamber as his words faded, the chamber’s heat still emanating into the hall around us. Lit above by skylights, the crematorium walls were painted with geometric shapes and gradients in purple, blue, and green. I appreciated the vivid colors offered to grievers, though I wasn’t sure how much it helped. The celebrant idled to the side of the chamber, wearing pale red fabric that wrapped across his chest and draped to the floor. He held a dark metal urn, polished to a shine, and stood in silence.
Father’s voice caught my attention, and most of us looked his way. You don’t run a corporation unless you can turn heads.
“I’d say we were no more than Jess’s age,” he said, gesturing his cup in my direction. The last few days had left him with dark circles under his eyes. “So we’ve both snorted ourselves into orbit. Tori gets the great idea for us to drive across town and watch the sun set over the greenhouses. We drive off, giggling the whole way ’cause we can’t stop ourselves.”
Uncle Boyd snickered. “And then a cop pulls you over.”
A smile tugged Father’s stubbly cheeks, and the expression looked odd on his usually cold and serious face. “Nope. We’re at the last intersection before the edge of town. Tori runs a red light, and out of nowhere comes this bus. I scream; he cranks the wheel; and his truck swerves, misses the bus, skids through the intersection and stops facing the same direction we started from. I can still hear Tori’s voice, whooping and hollering that he didn’t kill us, honking the horn and revving the engine.” Father paused, shaking his head. “Finally he looks at me, his eyebrow cocked, and says, ‘And you thought this was a boring idea.’”
The men laughed, and I couldn’t help but smile too. Father waited for them to calm. “Enough of my asides. Go ahead, Roan.”
Dad’s youngest brother raised his glass toward the cremator. “Brother, you were a gentleman of the finest order. You got caught screwing the neighbor boy at fifteen; I came home countless times in high school to find you had ditched, yet still you passed with higher grades than I ever could have. Then you broke a lot of men’s hearts before settling with this schmuck and coercing him into raising three kids with you.”
Father chuckled and clasped his shoulder.
“You taught me to work hard and fast in order to still have time for fun. I’ll miss you,” Uncle Roan finished.
Father cleared his throat, then his gaze met mine. “Jess, please say a few words.”
I swallowed, and beside me, Heath shifted on his feet. What do you say at your dad’s funeral? What do you say after three months of watching him wither from cancer, knowing he was going to die before his time?
“Dad,” I started, my throat threatening to shut tight. I could do this like they could, yeah? “Dad. I think I can forgive you for all the times you gave my clothes and toys to Jayne and Joule. And for the tough curfew.” Father chuckled, and I breathed with relief. “But really, I want to thank you. You encouraged me to follow in your footsteps, you taught me everything you knew—not just how to shave.” I smiled, tugging at the hair on my chin. “You showed me the Outskirts, the beauty of the wilderness. I will keep walking where you stopped, making footprints in dirt and marsh and grass. Maybe one day I can live up to your legacy.”
I didn’t know what else to say so I let my voice die, and a tear ran down my cheek. I stiffened and wiped it away. Father embraced me, patting me hard on the back. Then Jayne stepped forward and held up his glass to speak, and I let Heath hold my hand, his fingers entwining with mine.
Joule went next, and his voice cracked as he spoke. As he finished, we all turned back toward Father.
“You want a serious speech now?” Father straightened the dark-blue sash around his shoulders. “All right. Tori, we had thirty wonderful years together. You were a fantastic parent to our three sons, and your research has helped us all more than we can yet tell. Most importantly to me, you were always there. You told me you loved me every day, and I will always love you too.”
The tenderness and sadness in Father’s face amazed me. I had never seen him so human. Definitely not the stark businessman he usually was.
The celebrant raised his head and gazed out at our group. “We are all here on borrowed time, with borrowed resources.” His gentle voice hushed what murmuring remained. “But our lives here are no less crucial. Tori Cameron contributed to mankind in many ways, making the most of what he borrowed from the universe. He is part of the cycle again, the same water and energy that has been stored and used countless times over countless millennia. Let part of what sustained him sustain you now.”
“To Tori,” Father said, raising his glass to his mouth.
“To Dad,” I echoed, the others following suit. I squeezed Heath’s hand tight and tipped the cup, the familiar blandness of distilled water hitting my senses. His water. Dad’s. As Joule collected the cups from each person, Heath kissed the stubble on my cheek. I breathed deep. I didn’t want to cry.
The celebrant held the urn toward Father and spoke. “May the rest of Tori’s sustenance fuel lives and perpetuate love.”
Father nodded and then clutched the urn to his chest. “Always.”
It was over. Family members left in groups and couples, their voices mingling, mixed with laughter as the stories of Dad’s life started up again amongst them. I turned to Heath and buried my face against his chest. It wasn’t manly to cry, but I wanted to believe there was an exception to every rule.
The months of waiting, dreading that this day would come, now behind me. What came next? Getting on with my life?
The professor droned while I doodled at the bottom of my notes, sketching grasses and shrubs and hills. My ambition was out there, not here in class. Especially today when I was already well versed with the material. The screen flashed with the next economics subject, and I pretended to jot more notes. A twisted tree slowly formed on a hillside, leafless, reaching, struggling in the sunshine, drowning in acid. I wanted to go back to the wild. The end of the month couldn’t come soon enough.
As the professor discussed his last subject, students around me began to fidget. I switched off my tablet and slipped the stylus in its slot.
“I find it necessary to remind some of you that the final is in two weeks,” the professor added, the screen now showing a calendar. “On Wednesday we will cover the last of our material, and next week will be review sessions.”
Good. I didn’t want to go, and wouldn’t have to. Though I wouldn’t tell Father that, of course. I filed out of the classroom with the others, and we scattered in the glass hallway, the sunlight blocked at regular intervals by the solar panels above the glass. Taking my time walking to my last class of the day, I wished my motivation would return. Men passed by me—when had the fashion trend become wearing skintight shirts? If I could tell whether they shaved their chest hair, they needed the next size up. I chuckled to myself, and shuffled into the class, preparing myself for an hour and a half of doodling. It was physics, usually one of my favorite subjects. But I wasn’t with it today. I just wasn’t here.
Only ten minutes passed before I had to get out of there. I strode down the hall, in shadow, light, shadow, light. Outside, hot, sticky air greeted me. I mounted my electric scooter; maybe Heath could help me find myself.
The central office of Father’s company wasn’t too far from campus. A few miles past apartments and businesses, and then through a security gate where the guard knew me well enough that I didn’t have to show identification. The sun glinted off custom solar panels in the shape of the letters, CamCo R&D mounted on the office’s front face. I parked next to Father’s car, a bad idea if he happened to leave early. But that was unlikely, and I wouldn’t be long.
Without the wind blowing past me on the bike, the warm humidity smothered, seeping through fabric and hair with just the slightest sting of acid. Striding around to one of the back entrances, I swiped myself in with my Common.
Heath sat at his console, one leg sticking out into the aisle as he typed away. I walked by, purposely catching my foot on his shin. His head shot up, and then he smirked.
All I had to do was raise my eyebrows at him, and his holoscreen was off in an instant.
“Let’s ditch this joint,” he whispered as he walked past me. I followed him out, some of the other workers raising their heads as I walked by. They recognized me as Mr. Cameron’s son, all right—hopefully they wouldn’t tell Father about me ditching class.
Back in the sun, Heath hooked his fingers in my front pockets and pulled me to him. “So we’re both skipping the hard work and going straight to some hard play?”
“Can we eat first?”
Heath smiled, and his mustache tickled my lips as we kissed. “Fine.”
At this time of day we were fools to be outside, as attested by the forming sweat stains under my arms. I drove my scooter with Heath squeezing my hips. And after I parked, he tried to hold my hand, but something about the implied commitment made me stick my hands in my pockets. So he went for my back pocket instead, occasionally squeezing, making my pulse accelerate.
We entered a small café, the air cool and fragrant with spices. A short, skinny andro hardly out of his teens seated us, and asked for our order. And with the voice he had, you’d think he hadn’t started injecting yet. Heath’s brow furrowed as we gave our requests, and when the andro left, he turned back to me.
“Hey. How are you?”
I squirmed in my seat. “I don’t know. I want to say I miss him but. . .”
“But what? You can damn well say it and you know it.”
Yeah, I knew it. But that didn’t ease the tension in my chest.
Heath shrugged. “Come on now, be real. If it were my dad? I lost it bad enough when—”
“Yeah.” I didn’t want him to get started. “At this point I just want to keep moving forward. Finish my credentials and my internship.”
“Your father will love having you at the labs all day.”
That was the understatement of the year.
Our food arrived, and Heath dug into his pasta with the fervor I had come to expect from him. It was the same way he tackled a line of J-seven, the same way he pushed me down in bed. I ate slowly, watching the muscles of Heath’s jaw flex under blond stubble.
At the labs all day . . . it’s what Father thought I wanted. Dad had been the one to teach me to care for the environment stations, where I had found my true passion. Just a few more weeks, and I’d be back, as I intended to be every season for years to come. As long as Father let me.
Haworth provides a worthy analysis of sociological norms and aberrations while taking the reader on an enjoyable adventure.
I would recommend ‘Y Negative’ to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction with a romantic bend, readers interested in trans and gender questioning characters and readers who enjoy thought provoking commentary on a number of social issues that plague our world, acid rain aside.
[Kelly Haworth] did a really wonderful job at world building and creating a storyline I've never seen before.