Summer Rose's Secret
by Kristin Everhart

Summer Rose wasn’t like the other girls I knew. She shaved not only her legs, but also her face. Her breasts were flat and muscular, not budding and soft. When she dressed in the morning, she tucked away a secret. A penis between the quiet of her thighs.

I knew her before she was Summer Rose. I knew her when she was a he—named Tommy. We grew up together.  As he got a little older, he started growing out his hair, wearing pinks and reds, sparkles and glitter.  He painted his nails for the first time when he was eight. Once his dad found out, he ended up not only with blue and purple finger nails, but also blue and purple skin. He told him boys don’t paint nails. They paint houses. Tommy said maybe he wasn’t a boy, and his dad swung his hand across Tommy’s face.

I was the first person he asked to call him Summer Rose. We were twelve. Over the next three years he got a little braver and asked his brothers and mother to call him Summer Rose, too. Two of his brothers did from time to time, and the other two laughed in his face. Sometimes he would refuse to to talk them if they called him Tommy, but they did what their daddy did when someone didn’t listen, and turned to talking with their fists. That usually got Tommy to respond and Summer Rose to go away. His mom tried call her Summer Rose sometimes, though it was painful for her.

That’s why Summer Rose ran away a lot. Her family didn’t accept who she was. A lot of people didn’t. At school she wasn’t allowed to be Summer Rose either, except in art class. Ms. Cross didn’t care what or who you were as long as you didn’t steal the art supplies. 

My dad was in jail, and my mom took turns between screaming at her boyfriends and screaming at me, so I ran away, too.  

At 15 Summer Rose had run away too many times, missed too much school, and done too many drugs for the state to allow her to stay at home. She was sent to a group home, and a week later I was sent there too. The teachers and staff knew her secret, and it caused complications. They had to figure out which side of the dorm she would sleep on, and if she’d use the boys bathrooms or the girls.  They had agreed she could stay with the girls, but she had to get up before everyone else each day to keep her secret hidden. None of the other kids knew for sure that she was born a boy, though there were whispers. Only a couple were ever brave enough to ask her to her face though, or even just accept her for who she was. It was always snickers and sneers, bullying and bullshit.

Every day she went to great lengths to hide that secret. The shaving, the tucking, the brushing. Every inch of her body did everything it could to betray her, to expose her for what the world thought she should be instead of allowing her to be who she knew she was. 

After my second night in the group home, Summer Rose told me we were going to run away. She couldn’t take the pressure of being two people. She felt like Tommy was a lie she was forced to live out. She felt like she had to keep Summer Rose locked up, and only let her out when it was safe.

“It’s who I am,” she said. “It should always be safe for me to be who I am.”

I’d do anything for her and she knew it. So that night, when she said we were running away, I didn’t respond.  She already knew I was ready.

The day we ran away was a weekday. We went to an arcade as a group. It was filled with a low yellow light and smelled like a damp attic. The machines ding ding dinged, pinged, ponged, and chirped, their lights danced in succession up and down the frames. We were given $4 in coins. Young kids and teens roamed through the aisles of machines that had been there longer than any of them had been alive. Periodically, there were older men with mustaches on the heels of those kids, trolling for a good game, or a good girl, nobody was ever sure which.  

Summer Rose stopped at the machine that pushes coins and small trinkets to the edge of a tray. She pretended to put coins into the machine, watching with feigned anticipation, secretly knowing she wouldn’t be winning anything. A staff walked by her smiling, then stopped at the ski ball machine on the other side of the room. 

This was our opportunity. Summer Rose walked briskly towards the exit and I followed. We walked in silence for a couple of blocks then Summer Rose started to run, so I did too. The only thing I could hear was the stomp of our shoes on the pavement and the pant of our breath. Nobody was following us, but we couldn’t stop. She didn’t know where we were going yet, and I was ay with that. She never did, but we always figured it out. She was in charge, the puppeteer to this marionette.

A city bus chugged by the main street next to us and turned the corner. Summer Rose ran towards it. The bus was still there when we arrived. The digital letters lit up the black screen like the yellow stars in the dark sky above us. 

She dropped a fistful of nickels one by one in the coin slot and walked through the aisle searching for the best seat. They were all empty except one. A middle aged man sat in a window seat in the middle of the bus. He had on a yellowish brown jacket, big fat round worker boots, and had a container of homemade food on his lap.  She chose the last seats in the very back of the bus. After we sat, she pulled out the worn bag her nickels were in and started counting.   

“Five, ten, fifteen….$1 dollar.  “…35, 40, 45…$2 dollars.”

I listened as she counted half in her head and half out loud. The man in the middle of the bus was listening too. He turned towards us, asking us if we wanted the rest of his potato chips, extending his arm as far as it would go, leaning his body over the edge of his seat. 

“YES!” Summer Rose replied, crawling over the seats with her long skinny limbs, like a spider on a bed of rocks.

His fingers were fat and round like his boots, the skin at the tips were thick and calloused, stained with something black.  I heard the cracks in her voice, and I knew he could too. I watched him stare at the ball stuck in her throat as she took the bag of chips. Uncomfortable now, she quickly crawled back into her seat shoving chips in her mouth as she sat down. She did her best on a regular basis to hide her physical masculinity, but there was no hiding the appetite of a teenage boy. 

“Where are you headed?” The man sat in the aisle seat now, his whole body facing us.

“Where are you headed?” Summer Rose responded. I couldn’t tell if she was flirting or avoiding the question because she didn’t know the answer.

“Fenton.  I’m about to start my work week. I drive a semi-truck.” Fenton was a neighboring town of a neighboring town that was mostly made up of factories, teen moms, and meth heads. If you ended up there, it was likely you would die there too. 

“This bus goes there?”  Summer Rose asked.

“Yeah, it will be about another hour, but it goes there. Is that where you’re are going?” As he spoke I realized he was missing more than one tooth. And the ones that were still there were the color of rot. I sat in silent disgust as the two chatted on about what truck driving was like, places he’d been, people he’d met, what it was like living on the streets for Summer Rose, places she’d been, people she’d met. My eyes closed as the two droned on.  

The next time I opened my eyes the bus was stopped and Summer Rose and the man were getting off. So I got off too.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re following Jon,” she said.

It was late at night, or early in the morning, depending on how you looked at it. A looming shadow, even in the darkness, followed Summer Rose into the lot. A street lamp towered over the abandoned freeway. It flickered and buzzed, pushing its way into my thoughts, making my brain feel like it was doing the same. On off. On. Off. Buzz, Buzz, buzz. Summer Rose stood next to the man’s truck. Her long, narrow man-shaped feet smashed into a woman’s shaped shoe. They faced his fat round, worn boots, with fat round rope-like laces, looped clumsily around each other. They got closer and closer until her feet were almost hugged between his. I knew what she was doing there and I hated it. I wanted to scream, and yell. I wanted to kill that man, and every man that made her touch him. I hated them. And sometimes, I hated her for thinking she had to do it. Summer Rose always said the money was too good to pass up, and If I wasn’t going to do it too, then the least I could do was stand guard. 

Sometimes the men would take her in the truck if lots of people were around, but the lot was mostly empty now, and he seemed to be in a hurry. She said she just closed her eyes and pretended she was somewhere else until it was over, and so I pretended the same. We never talked about it afterwards. We just moved forward like nothing ever happened. That night we slept under a bridge near the semi-truck lot. The next few days we spent in the blankets of shadows, cast by the arms of trees. We trekked through blackberry brambles, frog filled creeks, and over the corpses of once proud standing oaks. The money Jon had given us was gone by the 3rd morning. Summer Rose’s whiskers were keeping track of time, growing longer and longer each day.  

The last morning, we slept in the heart of a forest on the edge of town. We both woke before the sun had fully risen, startled by the exclamation of a train whistle above us. Though Summer Rose’s whiskers had been visible before, on this morning they were especially prominent. I gently placed my hand on her cheek, the coarse bristles massaging my palm. She nestled into its warmth, more affectionate than I’d seen her before. Her eyes were closed, and we laid in the nest of the leaves in silence. The dusky sun was hanging in the air, and the morning dew licked our skin. Birds sung us a morning tune, and frogs croaked the chorus. Finally, she broke the silence. She opened her eyes, and whispered as she looked directly into mine.

“I’m ready.”  

“Are you sure?”  I asked.

She stood assuredly.  “Yes”.

I used the water in the creek, and a razor she’d gotten with the money from Jon, to shave the beard blanketing her face. She stood patiently while I made long slow scrapes across her skin, eliminating evidence of Tommy’s existence hair by hair. Dried leaves clung to her clothes in hopes they could join her on her journey, but she denied them that future and brushed them off one by one. I dusted the dirt off her back, and smoothed out her un-brushed hair the best I could. 

We were both still a little drunk from the night before, maybe even high, but this was enough to sober us both, if only for a minute. Summer Rose had made her decision and there wasn’t anything I could do to change her mind. She turned to face me and we stood in each-others presence. 

“Goodbye,” I said, slicing through the quiet.

“Goodbye,” she said, leaning in and squeezing me tightly. I went to squeeze back but she had already released, walking now towards her new destination. I watched her walk deeper into the forest, the arms of the trees reached down to welcome her, to usher her along, until all I saw left were those trees. She’d disappeared. 

I was there at the beginning of Summer Rose’s life, and now for the end of Tommy’s. She didn’t know exactly where she was going, but wherever it was, it was a place she didn’t have to fight the world to become Summer Rose, it would be a place where that’s all she was known for, a place where she already was.

 

© Kristin Everhart, 2016
For more info on the author click here. This story was read by Kim Bogus.