The last time I heard from Sally was in the ER the night I broke my wrist. We spent two hours waiting before a doctor saw me. Then, when my sex marker (F) didn’t match how I currently looked (M) or my name (Ryan), it was another two hours before the doctor came back with x-rays.
Sally made a jerk off motion behind the doctor’s back when he left for the second time and refused to meet our eyes. When we were alone, she made the jerk-off motion to me, too.
“I bet that’s how you broke it. Too aggressive with your sex toys. I know you’re all about sex positivity, but you positively snapped that wrist.”
I laughed. Sally and I were quite the pair. I looked like a twelve year old boy before the testosterone shots made my chin sprout fuzz and my body bulk out. Her hormones made her face heart-shaped and gave her breasts. She was thirty-seven, but still dressing like she was in tenth grade and wanted to get the footballer’s attention.
I couldn’t blame her. I had broken my wrist trying to impress the local jock at my gym, only to slam backwards and snap against a wall.
“You know, you’re right,” I told her. “I was jerking off when I broke this.”
I already knew the procedure for broken bones in the Ontario ER system. After my x-rays, I was supposed to get a cast, but at this rate, I’d be there all night.
“You don’t have to stay, you know,” I told Sally. “Thanks for driving me, but I know you have a date.”
“I do. A pretty date.”
“The guy with the red car again?”
“And the scar on his chin. The scar and the car,” she said and laughed. She was dressed in two inch heels and a pink top that matched the highlight of her eyes. When I’d met her in group, she said pink was her favourite colour. No one let her say that before she was thirty five, so she was catching up for lost time. Her nails glittered as she went through the file the doctor left in my stall. She held up my x-ray towards the light, her nails still shimmering.
“Goddamn. It looks like you fractured this.”
“Nope. Just a lot of little breaks,” I repeated the doctor’s words. “One of the most common injuries in adults. Not a big deal.”
“Yeah, but if you’re not careful, your bones will be all you have. So you gotta take care of ’em. That’s why you always gotta be on hormones. If you ever get your uterus out, you know to take them forever and ever, yeah? Don’t be like me. Don’t cut your balls and run.”
I didn’t laugh at her joke this time. Her harsh lesson in biology had been her follow up to her favourite colour story in group. She’d gotten an orchiectomy, thinking it was the smart way to rid her body of testosterone. As it turned out, hormones are good for bone growth. And not just menopausal women break their hips. Sally had shattered her hip pelvis when she was thirty-four, three years after removing her nuts without actually transitioning. So when everything was all repaired, metal holding her skeleton together, she figured it was better late than never to start liking the colour pink.
“And if, you know, God Forbid we ever die,” she added, her tone just the same as when she asked if I had jerked myself off into this broken wrist, “our bones are gonna be the only things that identify us. So always make sure to check with your dentist. Change your name there first. And everything else, well, die in the proper clothing. And hope to God gender doesn’t’ exist in the goddamn afterlife.”
“Stop,” I said.
“Yeah, kind of. And my head hurts.”
“You’re probably hungry. I’ll get you a snack.” She dropped the file back down on the counter and came back with a package of chips. We both ate them until the doctor came back and I was casted up.
“I have to go, love,” she said. “I have that big date.”
I waved with my other hand, not in a cast. Sally raised a brow and grabbed a Sharpie from the counter. “Let me leave you with a last laugh,” she said. She wrote something on the back of my cast, something I could barely see without twisting my body all around.
“There you are,” she said. “I’ll see you around.”
“Have a good night.”
The next day, she was gone.
I had theories about what happened to Sally. Most of the happier ones ended up with her living it up with the scar in a brand new car, him paying for her surgeries, and purchasing a mansion in Tahiti.
But I knew it was far more likely that the guy had shattered her skull instead.
When my cast came off six weeks later, I read about a body found in a local park. The doctor called me in from the waiting room before I could finish the article, so I tucked it under my hoodie and took it with me.
“Do you want to keep it?” the technician asked me, holding up my cast. “Sometimes people want to keep it.”
I was about to say no, when I saw Sally’s writing. She’d signed the cast before leaving.
I held open my backpack and the technician gave me the remnants of my cast. On the bus home, I read the newspaper about the dead body in the park. No head. No hands. No clothing.
“It’s her,” I told my roommate. I put the newspaper down on our table, but he barely looked up from his video game. “It’s Sally. The body they found in the park.”
“How do you know for sure?”
Because bones were all we had. I didn’t say it aloud. I continued reading the article. The entire body hadn’t been found, and at the rapid rate of decomposition, it wasn’t likely they’d find any other pieces due to scavengers. Her pelvis, the one that she’d shattered and that doctors had to piece back together with metal and screws, must not have been found because there was no mention of tracing the serial numbers.
“DNA testing,” a reporter said, “noted that the skeleton belong to a man.”
My heart sunk. This was Sally, I was sure of it now. I still had a toothbrush from when she’d stayed over and we talked all night. But if I came forward with her DNA, her body would be released back into her family. They would give her back her old name, bury her in a family plot, and call her their Darling Son.
So I stayed quiet. I wrapped my cast with her last words on it with the newspaper that announced her death and hid it under my bed.
Six weeks after that, I walked by the local commentary and saw them burying a bunch of bodies in pine boxes. Unnamed, unclaimed by family, and given a pauper’s funeral
My wrist ached for her again.
“You know, you have more masculinity in your pinky finger than most guys I know,” Sally told me in group. This had been after I reiterated the story of my broken home in front of everyone without shedding a tear. Absent father, daddy issues. The standard stuff that therapists wanted to hear about transgender men.
And I nailed it.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You know, that’s not a compliment. Masculinity will be the death of this planet. So fragile. It snaps off like it’s nothing and then we’re left picking up the pieces.”
I paused. My binder cut deep into my chest and I could barely move an inch without pain ricocheting through my body. My D-breasts were sandwiched across me, never moving. And that pain remained me of why I was here. “Masculinity is what I want, though. It’s what I need to pass.”
“What you want is a body,” Sally said. “New skin. More hair in places you didn’t have it before. A voice. A little less fat off your chest. You don’t want masculinity. Most cis men don’t want masculinity. It’s something thrust upon you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t really talk with my binder so tight, anyway. I hoped my silence counted as a response. In most conversations with men, I had learned that it did.
“You want to get breakfast?” she asked. “I’m feeling like eggs. I think eggs would be good right now.”
It was four in the afternoon, but I said yes. We talked all night and into the morning. I laughed harder than I had in weeks. The next day, when I woke up and saw bruises across my chest, I went to the emergency room.
“What have you been doing, Rachel?”
“It’s… Ryan. My name is Ryan.”
“What have you been doing?” The doctor asked without looking up from the x-rays. “You have four fractured ribs. Has someone been hurting you?”
“No,” I said. “I’ve just been having fun.”
“When the hyoid bone, located in the throat,” the medical examiner from TV said, “breaks, it means the cause of death is usually strangulation.”
I shut off the TV. Another crime drama had paraded out transgender women as set design when talking about a prostitute’s death. Every single episode was the same, all the medical and legal information a rehashed version of the previous episode. When I was twelve, I used to find these shows comforting. Someone was killed. Medical science and detective work found the killer. And they were put away.
Now, at twenty-seven, everything seemed to ring hollow. Sally had been dead for months. There was no way anyone would ever find the scar with the car. Even if I came forward, I could barely make a dent in Sally’s case file given what I knew. So I went to bed instead of watching TV.
I slept with a hand around my throat. Sick fever dreams that pinned me to the bed. Pressure on my chest, like someone was weighing my breasts down with sandbags. When the bone in my throat–hyoid, hyoid I repeated, named after the Greek word for U–snapped, my body shot awake.
And Sally stood in front of me.
Her bare feet didn’t touch the floor. She was made up of light and gossamer, so thin I could see through her body and to the next wall. She wasn’t wearing loud colours or sequins or pink eyeliner. Her hair was short, too brown, and cropped close to her head. She wore a jean collared shirt over jeans. One of the worst cardinal sins of fashion.
“Ryan. You’ve gotta help me.” Her voice was soft, but dry. She sounded far away; like she was trapped under glass or underwater. “I’m dead.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Shut up. Sympathy is for the weak. I need you to do something.”
“You have to make me the Skeleton Key.”
“Skeleton Key,” she repeated, voice softer. Her silhouetted outline disappeared against my bedroom wall.
She was gone. Again.
I touched my throat and looked at it in the mirror, expecting to find bruises. There was nothing. I stared up at the ceiling, repeating the words in my mind over and over again. Her blue demined madness splashed in front of me.
We have genders in the afterlife, I realized. What a cruel, stupid fate.
I made the jerk off motion with my hand. My wrist smarted from where I’d broken it. My ribs hurt from my binder earlier that day. And my hyoid bone still ached as if it had been snapped in two.
Had Sally been choked? I didn’t know. I shouldn’t care how she ended, only how she lived. That had been the motto at group when she disappeared. No one had had a funeral, excerpt for private eulogies we all had in our minds. To everyone else, Sally wasn’t dead. Just gone.
I saw her–except not her–in front of me again. How do you get rid of ghosts? I Googled all the options on my phone and only came up with burning the bones, burying the body. None of which seemed to work for her. It wasn’t that Sally was a ghost; it was that she wasn’t the right ghost.
Make me the Skeleton Key. That was what she wanted. So I searched up that next. A skeleton key was a master key that could open any door, usually part of a hotel. It was also a novel by Stephen King, who Sally read voraciously.
“I’m always in waiting rooms for treatments,” she’d say. “So you need a couple hundred thousand words of nonsense from King to keep you going.”
Her voice was so clear in my mind I started to laugh again. Then I nearly cried when I remembered her rant about Carrie, the girl with telekinetic powers who went to prom. It was evidence that Stephen King was a little bit trans.
“What other apparent middle aged man writes a revenge fantasy using period blood and prom as the main M.O.? Come, on,” Sally said. “That’s total Venus envy.”
Everything we touched, everything we read, became a little bit trans because we wanted it to be. Before Sally was a ghost, she was always haunting things.
So of course our bones were haunted. Of course they were already cursed. If a skeleton key opened all doors, could it also put her soul back together? If I found all of her bones, could I put Sally back together?
The thought kept me up until morning. Then I went for a drive.
I found a metal detector, the kind that beach combers use, from a pawn shop. I brought it to the local park where her body had been found. There were indentations in the grass from the spokes the crime scene unit must have used to put up barriers from the public. When nothing but bottle caps came up in this area, I expanded my search.
And found tire tracks. From the scar with the car? I wasn’t sure and certainly didn’t know enough about cars to be able to trace the treads. I followed them from a picnic area into the back woods. Months had passed, I told myself. I was unlikely to find anything more but bottle caps again. But the beach comber went off.
A screw. Metal, industrial strength. From her pelvis. I followed the beeping and came up with another pile of bones. Her pelvis was shaped like the hyoid bone, only bigger. U-shaped and caked with dirt and metal that kept it intact. Next to the pelvis, I saw scattered bones from a hand. I picked up her pinky and slipped it into my pocket. Warmth flooded me.
“Hi, Sally,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
I put what remained of her hands and other small bones that looked no more than stones into my backpack. Her pelvis slipped from my hands, shattering like it must have done years before. The bone shards fell down into a pattern, then rearranged themselves. They spelled out an address.
135 Stevenson Drive.
I looked it up on Google Maps. It was a hotel at the edge of town.
My car was the only one in the lot. A black man sat at the front desk, a thick red-covered book in front of him. He raised his eyes from the words as soon as I stepped inside. “Hello.”
“Hi,” I said. “I don’t know if I’m in the right place.”
“What do you need?”
“A skeleton key.”
“Well, I need a skeleton.”
“A whole one?”
“A piece of one will do. But your favourite piece.”
“I’m… I’m very confused.” The pinky finger in my pocket warmed again. The shards of her pelvis now were too dangerous to handle; I’d barely been able to put them in my backpack without cutting my thumbs to ruins.
The man behind the counter, teeth wide like china bowls, smiled. “You need to open a door and deliver a wandering soul, I’m guessing?”
“Good. Find that person’s body. Bring me a little bit o’ bone and I will give you the key to get to the other side. Deliver the rest of the bones to the portal–the door to the next world. Then your person will make it through.”
“And she’ll be better there?”
“What is she like right now?”
“Angry,” I said. I touched my neck and he didn’t seem fazed by it, like it happened all the time. “She’s also not who she died as.”
“Hmmm.” He pondered this a moment. When he set the book he’d been reading down in front of him, I realized it was all blank pages. Nothing there but tiny pin pricks like Braille, expect that the man could see. He looked passed me, through me, down to my very bones themselves.
“How did the ghost appear to you?” he asked.
“As a man. But she’s a woman.”
“Her bones lied. She is a woman. I know her as one. She knows me as a man.”
“Are you the only person who knows she’s dead?”
“I think. Now. But someone found her body and they labeled her wrong.”
“There you go. Our ghosts are only memories reread too many times until they manifest. So you need to counter the rumours with your facts. You need to bring her back to life.”
“Can’t I do that by pushing her through the portal? Bringing all of her bones here?” I asked, exhaustion seeping into my tone. I ached and wanted to sleep. I hadn’t gone to my job in two days, and I had no sick days to draw from. “I just want her to rest.”
“You need to counter with a memory. One that will last. That’s why there are headstones. People read the name. Name stays alive. Right now she’s anonymous. So you need to bring her back.”
“Do I do this before or after I send her bones through the portal?”
“Either will do. But within twenty-four hours.”
I glanced at the clock in his office. It said three PM, but it seemed so much later than that. “Okay. I can do that.”
“Good. Now give me a bone.”
I took the pinky out of my pocket and handed it over to him. He sniffed it and smashed it into dust. It fell into the book and dissolved into the pages. His eyes turned to black orbs.
“Thank you. You can go.”
“But the key–you haven’t given me anything.”
“You need her skeleton. She is the key.” He drew his pen and wrote down several words. “Here is the address. Bring her bones there and give her a headstone. Then she will be free.”
When I was nine, my father threw me down the stairs. I broke my first two toes and fractured my shin. As I waited with my mother in the ER, I started to see spots. We learned that he’d also cracked my skull, like he’d cracked my mother’s years before.
The doctor who saw me was kind and spoke in an even voice. He told me random facts about this hospital, about the X-Men when he noticed my T-shirt, and then random facts about bones. Anything he could think of to keep me awake, so I didn’t fall asleep and never wake up.
“You know,” he said. “When you’re born, you have almost three hundred bones. As you grow up, you get fewer, right down to two hundred and six. “
As I waited out my concussion, I also waited for my body to get bigger so I could break less. Instead, Social Services were finally called and my father was locked up.
I became the man of the house, then.
“Your father was awful,” Sally said when I told her my version of the story. “You don’t deserve to think of awful people. They’ll shrink and shrink and shrink out of your life if you don’t think about them. The good times will grow and grow and grow.”
My shins ached again, like they had when I was nine, as I dug up Sally’s body. Her grave was in the corner of the cemetery with little lightning and virtually no presence. It was dark enough, and warm enough at night now, so I could do this and not be caught.
At around midnight, I cracked open her casket and took out all the bones. I still had her hands from the park and her pelvis in a thousand pieces. The pinky had been used to pay her way. I had everything I needed… except for her head.
I ached as if it’d been split open. Could I get away without having her skull? Surely I had enough. As I stacked her bones up in my backpack, I worried that she’d be forced to live her life as a headless horseman, haunting the playground and warning little children about the dangers of gender.
The address the man at the hotel had given me was an hour away in the middle of a lake. When no boat rental place was open, I hacked the locks, grabbed a boat, and sped out into the middle of the lake.
I dropped each one down and counted them up. The din of the mosquitoes sounded inside my head, but none of them bit me, as if I was protected by something. By the time I’d reached the end of the backpack, I tilted it open and scattered her bone dust on the surface. It dissolved. The water was blacker than the night around me. Nothing happened for a long time as I waited for the crushing feeling of my chest to disappear.
The lake started to bubble. White mixed with the black surface. And Sally’s bones rose to the top. Her femur, her ribcage, and sections of her hands. They all floated.
“Oh no,” I cried out.
Sally’s jokes about her osteoporosis and how she was like a flightless bird thanks to her hollow bones rolled around in my mind. “Call me ostrich. Call me emu. If I keep eroding, maybe one day I’ll fly away.”
I started to sob.
“Sink, sink. Please go away. Please sink down.”
I paddled back to the shoreline and found rocks, flat black ones used to skip across the surface. I dug through the sand, ravenous and desperate for something heavy to weight her body down and get her to the portal. The more I dug, the more I felt something take over my body. Dirt clung to my nails. My skin split on the rocks. I uncovered a stone so white, so pristine I thought it wasn’t real.
I pulled out a skull from the sand on the shore. A skull with a small bullet hole in its centre, like the plug of a basin that let life slip through. I held Sally’s skull in my hand and sighed.
“I have all of you now.”
I filled her skull with rocks to weigh it down and got back into the boat. In the centre of the lake, I dropped her into the water. The skull cracked. More bones, tiny and numerous like a baby’s, flew everywhere.
But she started to go down. Down and down and down into the water, Sally disappeared.
The lake was black again and still. The humming of mosquitoes turned to the humming of music.
I still had one last piece to solve.
“You know,” Sally said. “I don’t think I want surgery anymore.”
We lay back on the car from the scar she was dating. Cherry red, hood long and flat. The two had had sex on it, but she still thought it was better for lounging than fucking.
“So why go to group?” I asked. “Therapy is only there so you can talk out your demons before the knife cuts you open and repurposes the flesh.”
“Oh, creative. Since when did you become the Adam from clay?”
“Since the doctors promised to make me but forgot to breathe life into me.”
“You see, that’s why I don’t want surgery. I already have a life. I’m full of it.” Sally grinned and nudged my shoulder. “And I really think I have found someone who likes my body the way it is.”
“A fuck on the hood of the car is hardly a vow.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to be a wife.”
“What do you want to be?” I asked. “I mean who. Who do you want to be?”
“Sally. That’s it. I don’t ask for much.”
All I thought of was how hard it was for me to be Ryan. Sally could forgo surgery, but she had an option. I could only have a penis crafted out of the skin of my thigh, called a franken-dick by most other trans men in group. I could only ever dream of having something I could reject. I always had to take whatever was handed to me.
“But you know,” Sally went on, “I also go to group for you. Where else would I get such cutting commentary about the state of men?”
“The scar doesn’t talk?”
“Oh, God no. Why would he? Masculinity makes them silent. Please learn from those mistakes.”
I told her I would try. I knew those mistakes were the ones that had knocked me down stairs and broke my toes. Crushed my ribs and left me with purple bruises everywhere. Two weeks after the conversation on the scar’s car, I’d be in the hospital with a broken arm.
I’d always break myself to make myself feel whole.
And Sally would be dead.
Both of us never fucking learned.
When Sally’s body was under the water, I rowed to the shore. I picked up the piece of paper the man at the hotel had given me and a pen from the bottom of my backpack. I wrote down Sally’s name. Her date of birth (give or take) and added that her favourite colour was pink. Hot pink.
I floated the paper into the water. Watched it dissolve. I checked the black water.
When it wasn’t enough, I picked up my phone and called Sally’s answering machine. There was still enough space. I listed off all the bones that I had broken and what I had learned from each one. Shin, toes, skull, ribcage, wrist, hyoid (if only in a dream). I was still talking when an orb of white light appeared in the middle of the pond. The light constituted itself, piece by piece, until Sally was formed.
She wore the same sequined top in bright pink she had on when she disappeared. Her hair was the same shade of bottled-blonde and down to her shoulders. She had no shoes, but her toes were painted in pink.
She waved at me. I waved at her. The wave turned into the jerking off motion, and I finally hung up the phone.
“Thank you,” she said. “What a fucking relief.”
“I hate that the after world has genders. This is the worse lottery I’ve ever seen.”
She laughed, loud and throaty. It made the water ripple towards me.
“It sucks, but you do what you can. Remember what I said, right?”
“Good. ‘Cause I gotta go,” she said. “Never fall in love with men and their cars. And always speak up. Something else, too. Make my last words good, bro.”
I waited until she disappeared under the water again. When I couldn’t breathe, I thought I’d been choked again. Tears stung my face instead. I reached into my bag and pulled out the cast from my arm.
I left it in the hollow from where I’d dug up her skull. Her signature faced the dawn as it crept up over the trees along the lake. Water lapped at its surface, dissolving into nothing but dust.
Evelyn Deshane’s creative and nonfiction work has appeared in The Atlantic’s tech channel, Plenitude Magazine, Briarpatch Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lackington’s, and Bitch Magazine, among other publications. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University’s Public Texts Program and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Waterloo. Their most recent project, #Trans, is an anthology about transgender and nonbinary identity online. For more information, check out evedeshane.wordpress.com.