Part one of a story in a volume of short fiction now available on Kickstarter.
by Bennet Croft
Tommie studied the mirror with dissatisfaction. The changes in the face and figure reflected there were too marked to ignore. Most traces of the skinny, giddy kid who enjoyed lingering in front of the glass were gone, as was the pleasant trait of being able to blend in with nearly any pack of peers. For someone heading into the final year of school it posed a genuine problem. The last thing you wanted was to get pegged as belonging to a particular group. It wasn’t just a fashion blunder; it could mean social and career disaster. What you were supposed to want was to play the chameleon, to paint and coif, dress up or down, and generally make yourself over into whatever struck your fancy—that was benefit of the New Freedom.
But this. Eyes like emeralds. Mouth like a fat rose. Gold-spun hair, sculpted cheeks and chin tapering down to a delicate throat. A body with curves that told through even the baggiest clothes.
She looked like a girl.
Tommie nearly gagged at the gender-specific pronoun. Using those went beyond being merely uncouth. Even thinking them was downright vulgar.
But when she looked at what eighteen years of life had made her, well, how could she think of herself any other way and still be honest?
The sound of her foster calling up the stairs to announce breakfast broke Tommie’s sad self-examination.
“In a minute,” Tommie called back, smoothing her locks into a ponytail and trying to decide if she had the emotional stamina to choose anything more stylish to wear than the tights and ridiculously long top she’d thrown on.
Shoulders heaved as she decided to forgo even a little mascara and lip rouge. There were no blemishes to camouflage on her milky skin, either, so why bother with foundation?
Instead, she flipped off the bathroom light and trotted down the stairs to the dining nook. Marn, her foster since Tommie had started school, was laying plates of non-dairy, non-gluten, non-sugary food on the table.
As usual, Marn was wrapped in a riotously colored faux silk houserobe, her bleached hair jutting stiffly into the bangs-and-bouffant-fall she kept up from her school days. Tommie had never thought of her as anything but a nurturing woman.
“Any sign of your sibling?” Marn asked, referring to Jess, the fish-mouthed person of about twelve who occupied the other upstairs bedroom. Jess rarely made an appearance except at mealtimes or when Tommie desperately had to use the bath. In the latter instance you could count on him to either be planted on the john or just outside the door, whining and puffing.
Him. Tommie noted silently that she was slipping even further into thinking in terms of distinct gender. After all, besides being a touch rotund Jess was about as nondescript a being as she’d ever encountered. The only real clue Jess leaned in the way of being a boy was his addiction to video games.
“I saw some light flashing under the door and heard what I thought was Jess mumbling something about making it to the next level,” said Tommie.
“That kid,” muttered Marn, her tone packing a world of meaning into the two simple words. In a single floating movement, she fluttered into the hall, bellowed a stern warning up the stairway, then returned and settled at the head of the booth where they generally ate.
A moment later Tommie heard frantic stomping in the upstairs hall, followed by the bathroom door slamming shut. In other words, typical school morning sounds.
She waited until her foster had filled her mouth with a forkful of poached egg whites before attempting to steer the conversation toward a more weighty topic.
“Marn,” she asked. “Do you remember your Decision Day?”
Her foster chewed calmly and swallowed before venturing a reply.
“Kiddie,” she chided. “Are you worried about that already? You’ve got months before you finish school. Enjoy yourself. Everything’ll work out just fine.”
Tommie reflected for a moment, partly to make it look like she was considering Marn’s assurances, and partly to gauge just how much of her own anxieties it was safe to reveal.
“I guess so,” she finally replied, spreading a little prune paste on her toasted kale. “It’s just ….”
Marn cut her off.
“There’s that word again,” she said. “Try to tell a young person anything and they’ll throw that in to try and cloud the issue. Guess in my day the trigger word was ‘but.’ Either way, it means you’re going to try to stress my mellow.”
Undaunted, Tommie finished her thought.
“It’s just I was wondering if you always wanted to be a foster,” she explained. “I mean, I’ve heard that people don’t always end up getting their first pick.”
“Oh, that was a while ago,” she said, sighing. “Fact is, I don’t really remember a whole lot about my Decision Day. See, the night before there was a major party, and I was still kind of buzzy during the big event. All I could think about was trying to borrow some headache meds—and maybe whose party to crash that night.”
She laughed again, really more of a giggle—a golden tremelo like a fluttering hair ribbon.
“I was so loopy I put my completion robe on backwards,” Marn confessed. “I would’ve walked out of the dressing room that way if one of my classmates hadn’t said something.”
Tommie couldn’t help but scowl at Marn’s unhelpful reminiscing.
“So what about becoming a foster?”
Marn took another bite and talked through her food.
“Don’t think I every gave it much thought either way,” she mumbled, partly to mask a surge of sentiment she felt rising. “But I’ll tell you the truth. I’ve loved every one of my foster kiddoes—even that roly-poly fishmouth upstairs who can’t get out of bed without a prybar.”
She rolled her eyes abruptly upward, as if expecting to hear some sort of higher confirmation—or maybe just a sign that Jess was on the move.
“Hurry it up!” she yelled at the ceiling.
“You better wrap it up, too,” she told Tommie. “Don’t want you to miss your ride to school. Got an online meeting with the foster office this morning, which means I don’t have time to drive you in—or pick up cannabis candy and stream dramas before you get home. Good thing Friday’s coming.”