by Rae White
Their scar speaks to me in whispers. If you put your ear close enough to make a seal, the sound is like the inside of a seashell, only more like voices mixed with the slush of murky water. When I stay over at Emma’s, we curl together in their dusty bed amongst debris and soot. I fold into their back so my ear reaches their hip, and I let the murmurs and sighs coming from the pinched carmine skin lull me to sleep.
Emma and I have been nesting in the abandoned mansion for about six months now and there’s still so much left unexplored. Each night I slip through the rusted gate and smash my way through leggy foliage, hardly making a mark on its growth despite my hefty boots.
Em meets me at the bottom of the misshapen, water-swollen stairs and we hold hands going up them. We’ve explored most of the first level so far: the library of gutted books, and the kitchen of moulded utensils and meandering vines trailing over bench tops and sneaking into cupboards.
Em has made their home in the nook of the jammed-up fireplace. The room looks like it was once a parlour (one of many) and the carpets are covered in blackened stains and wide erratic slashes. If I lived here I would probably sleep in the kitchen, making myself a bed of crunchy leaves and rice sacks, so I could be as close to plants as possible without being outdoors.
But Em prefers to burrow themselves into small spaces like a hamster. Once, when I was very tipsy, I told them they’d dug themselves right into my heart’s core. The rims of their eyelids became very wet and they gripped my hand even tighter than usual.
Today is a big day because Em and I have decided to explore the mansion’s second floor. I stash my school bag behind an indoor plant (aka the brittle remains of potted neglect) and Em picks debris out of my hair.
“You’re always covered in plant life, Kai,” they say with a giggle. “Have you ever thought maybe you are a plant?”
I laugh with them but trail off, thinking of the brush of leaves I felt on my skin as I cut through the park on my way here. I wonder what it’s like to be a plant.
Sadly my only claim to enchanted fame is the glitter. Forever embedded on my inner right wrist is a nestled collection of silver and blue glitter. My mother, a perfectionist and enthusiast of cleanliness, has tried washcloths, rubbing alcohol and home remedies galore but nothing shifts this tiny trail of glitter trapped in my skin.
Em reassures me that one day I’ll know why I have it and what it’s for, like one day they’ll know why their scar whispers. I’m not sure I believe them but I guess in the meantime, I have a cute twinkly bracelet I can wear to parties!
Em is braver than I am, so they take the lead in going up the stairs and test each one with their toe. They never wear shoes, even in a place like this, which is littered with broken glass and any number of unnameable sticky things.
Last year I thrifted Em an old pair of sneakers – they were on the footpath outside a neighbour’s house for garbage collection. Red in colour and covered in multi-coloured paint splotches, I thought they were perfect for Em’s feet. But they sit on the mantle of their fireplace bedroom: loved and admired, but never worn.
Em reaches the top of the staircase, after some near misses with the crumpling wood, which is rotten with termites. They hold out their hand to me and shine their torch to help me find my way. “I know you can do it!”
“I’m hungry,” I whine, stopping for a moment, and glance at Em with what I hope is a pitiful look. “I told you we should’ve bought a packed lunch.”
“Who says we didn’t?” Em reaches into one of the pockets of their cargo pants and brings out a muesli bar. With renewed enthusiasm, I keep tentatively walking towards them. “I found a bunch of these in one of the kitchen cupboards. Must’ve been left by squatters. It’s only recently passed the Best Before date and hasn’t been eaten by rats. I call that a steal!”
With my eyes firmly on the ground, I shake my head. “You’re truly disgusting. But at this moment I’ll eat anything.”
“That’s the spirit!” says Em through a mouthful of food.
After finally reaching the second floor, I settle myself on the ground and inhale three muesli bars. When I ease myself up from the dusty floorboards, I have to brush off my navy pleated skirt.
“I should’ve worn something other than my school uniform,” I say.
“Or at the very least, not a skirt,” agrees Em. “Still not letting you wear the uniform you want?”
“Nope,” I say. “And the toilet thing isn’t great either. The principal doesn’t believe in gender neutral toilets.”
Em reaches for my hand and gives it a squeeze. “Jeez, it’s not like we’re magical unicorns. You can’t just ‘not believe’ in us and hope we’ll go away.”
“Do you think unicorns are real?” I say. “With everything we’ve seen …”
As if on cue, I hear a spluttering noise ahead of us. The glossy silhouette of Annabelle appears, her filmy feet grazing the surface of the floor like a hand skimming water and making the noise of hot oil crackling on a pan. Sometimes her feet bob below the surface, her calves submerged in the floorboards.
“Darlings!” she exclaims, her cellophane arms outstretched. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
The three of us embrace as best we can. Touching her is like slivers of wet fish shifting against your skin. She smells of lavender and champagne.
“We’re finally exploring the second floor,” I say. I am mesmerized as always by the shininess of her skin and satin slip.
Annabelle claps her hands and does a little twirl, her nightie fluttering around her thighs. “You’re in for a treat then! Shall I show you around or do you want to explore on your own?”
“How about some helpful hints?” says Em. “That way, we have tips from an expert —”
“That’s me!” cheers Annabelle.
“— but still get the adrenaline rush of solo exploring.”
Annabelle floats closer to us, her hand cupped to her polished glass lips. When she speaks, her voice is hushed. “In that case, I suggest you turn right. I think that’s where you’ll make a new friend.”
Em frowns. They fold their arms in front of them, making their baggy green t-shirt billow at their touch. “I don’t think I need any more friends. Kai is the only friend I need!” they declare, looking at me.
“Suit yourself,” says Annabelle with a shrug. She launches herself back, rocking on her haunches like a lifebuoy.
“Em didn’t mean it,” I say, nudging them with my elbow. “You’re our friend too.” Em nods with vigour, their cheeks flushed.
“Don’t sweat it, darlings,” Annabelle says in her singsong voice. “You’re too young to be partying with a sad ghost like me anyway!”
It takes us another half hour to console Annabelle and remind her that, in a tumbledown place like this, we’re all friends and we stick together. Once satisfied with the depth of our apology, she glides down to the ground floor, calling out to us, “I’m so elated! I think I’ll frighten some people walking near the front gate to keep the good times rolling!”
We find our ‘new friend’ in a teenager’s bedroom of rotting bed sheets and soft toys caked in dust. A framed photograph sits lavish and large above the vanity unit, amid a display of dried-up perfumes and desert-cracked husks of foundation in jewelled containers.
Em shines their torch towards the corner of the room and begins rifling through cupboards. My ears are caught by a quiet sobbing. I look up from the vanity to see tears rolling down the cheeks of the person in the photograph. Their hair, braided and piled high, is wobbling as they sob and tears stain their pink high-necked dress.
“Em!” I shout. “This photo is crying!”
“I’m a person, not a photo,” says a faint voice. Their lips are perfectly rouged and quivering.
“You can talk?” I say, moving closer. I notice their tears have rolled down their dress and slipped out of the frame, trickling down the wall and onto the floor below.
“Of course I can talk. If I can cry, I can talk.” The figure in the photo moves their head slightly to the side, avoiding my eyes.
Em runs over to me with a rainbow slinky dangling in their hand. “This is the best night ever! Also, this is mine now.”
“Em, see this giant portrait?” I say, putting a hand on their shoulder to steady myself. “They talk.”
“The person in the photo talks?”
“Yes. And cries.”
“Right. That’s different.” Em stretches their neck forward and tilts their head. “Hi person, I’m Em. Who’re you?”
After a long pause, a small voice mumbles, “I don’t know.”
Em and I sit with our backs to the vanity, avoiding eye contact with the person in the photograph. We’re not being rude – it was at their request. They wished to tell us their story without eyes watching them.
Through hushed words and mumbled apologies, they paint us a picture of growing up in the late ’70s in Queensland. Their family is well-off and they can have almost anything they want. Unfortunately, they don’t want a car or a pony or whatever it is rich kids are expected to buy. They want freedom of expression. They want overalls, bowler hats and chunky ties. Throughout their childhood, their parents spend a good deal of time convincing them of their femininity and of their gendered obligations to the family.
“According to my Mum,” says our new friend, “short haircuts were for lesbians.”
Em frowns. “That’s bullshit.” They roll the slinky back and forth in their hands. “What a shitty opinion.”
“And she said overalls made me look like a man.”
“Do you want to be a man?”
There’s a pause and I can hear muffled crying again. “I don’t know. I don’t know what I want to be.”
We sit for a while in silence. I put my head on Em’s shoulder and whisper in their ear, “We should help them.”
The slinky stops moving and I watch Em’s hand fidget with a hole in their cargo pants as they consider my idea. With a slow out-breath they say, “We didn’t know who we were and then we found out. We could help you explore your identity … if you want?”
I turn around to see the person with their face shifted towards us and a half-smile on their lips. “I would like that very much.”
It’s about midnight by the time we make it to bed. I curl myself into Em’s fireplace bed and hold them against me. When I wake at around 2am, Em’s hand is still tight around mine.
“Have you slept?” I ask, brushing my thumb lightly against their palm.
Em sighs and rolls over to face me. “I’m worried we made a promise we can’t keep. What if we can’t help, Kai?”
I use my thumb to make small circles against their inner wrist. After several minutes, I see their eyelids close and their breathing slow. I push aside Em’s short brown fringe to place a kiss on their forehead. Their hair smells faintly of cinnamon.
“We can only do our best,” I say, before folding myself into my favourite sleeping position against their hip. I nestle my ear close to their crinkled scar, feeling instant comfort in the quiet, lilting murmurs. As I fall asleep, I hear a new voice amongst the crowd of incoherent whispers. It begins as a distant lap of waves on the beach, increasing to become a distinct rush: a sharp voice enunciating one word over and over again: “Annabelle.”
“I miss food,” groans Annabelle. She sits beside us at the kitchen table looking forlorn while Em deftly chops tomato for our sandwiches. The afternoon light is coasting through the kitchen windows, casting grey shadows shaped by the vines that flourish against the fractured glass and brittle framework.
“Thank you for bringing so many sandwich fixings,” says Em. “You know I appreciate it.”
I tug a head of lettuce out of my backpack, along with a jar of pickles. “It’s what pocket money is for, in my opinion.”
“Why am I here?” says Annabelle dully. In front of her is a tomato, which she traces with the outside of with her index and middle fingers. Her hand looks like wafting smoke or dust caught in a sunbeam. “I adore your company but I was hoping to haunt the neighbours this afternoon.”
“We wanted to ask you a question,” I say. “Who is the person in the photograph? The one you suggested we be friends with?”
Annabelle hesitates, continuing to contemplate the tomato. “My cousin,” she says slowly.
I look at Em for confirmation and they raise their eyebrows. “And what’s their deal?” says Em bluntly.
“They?” asks Annabelle, her head snapping towards us. “I only have one cousin.”
Em leans forward in their seat. “They can be used for just one person.”
“Can it?” says Annabelle, their eyes wide. “How strange.”
“Not strange,” says Em sternly. “Just gender neutral. And when you don’t know someone’s gender, it’s polite to use they pronouns just in case. At least, until the person tells you what they’d prefer.”
Annabelle considers this, rocking her head and closing her eyes. “That makes sense, I suppose.” She opens her eyes and looks at the two of us. “Are you both theys then?”
Em grins. “I use they, but Kai doesn’t. Kai’s not chosen pronouns yet.”
“Gosh,” says Annabelle, going back to her attempt at picking up the tomato in front of her. “I wish my cousin had been able to make those kinds of choices. I think … they would’ve been happier.”
“They told us their parents wouldn’t even let them experiment with clothing,” I say.
“That’s true,” says Annabelle. “Not only clothing, but everything to be honest. My Aunt was very particular about gender roles.”
“Do you know why your cousin is trapped in that photo?” Em asks.
“I’m not sure if it’s them or an impression of them,” Annabelle says, “but either way, they were dolled up in an outfit they hated and forced to sit for a photo. I think perhaps my cousin felt so claustrophobic, they got themselves stuck in the photo after they died.”
Annabelle pauses, bowing her head towards the table. “They killed themselves less than three weeks after that portrait was taken.”
We sit in silence for some time, the weight of this new information settling in. Out the corner of my eye I see a moth from the night before flounce slowly towards the light arching through the open window.
Later that afternoon, just as the sun is setting, Em and I make the slow trek up the rickety stairs to the second floor. We walk into the bedroom armed with a variety of potentially helpful items: a butch muscle vest, a pair of frayed shorts and some scissors.
“Hi friend!” I call into the room, keeping my torch low to the ground so as not to startle them. “How’re you doing?”
Annabelle’s cousin is turned away from us; the back of their elaborate hair looks like the top of a glazed, knotted pastry.
I try again. “We have some gifts for you.”
Gradually their head turns and they smile at us. “I like gifts, thank you.”
“We thought these might help you find your new look,” says Em.
The person in the photo tilts their head and frowns. “But how will you get them to me?”
I take the vest from Em’s hands and walk towards our friend. “I noticed when you cried yesterday, the tears could leave the photo. I’m hoping the reverse works and I can just pass things to you.”
“Kai is ever the optimist,” pipes up Em.
I hold the shirt in my right hand and stand on my tiptoes. I wave the item aimlessly at the photo and the person in front of me laughs. I haven’t heard them laugh before and it sounds like a wind chime on a warm day.
“Your laugh is beautiful,” I tell them.
“Oh!” They smile and blush a little. “I don’t think anyone’s complimented me for a very long time.”
Em is eventually able to lift me up on their shoulders so I can reach the photograph. They pass me each of the presents and I slowly ease them in. Putting my hand inside the photo feels like the wet suppleness of egg yolks mixed with the grit of sandpaper. I’m hesitant at first, but soon discover it’s just a sensation and it won’t do anything nasty like disintegrate my hand.
We turn our backs so our friend can get changed. I hear the slip and rustle of them removing clothes and remember back to the first time I tried on items that actually made me feel like myself.
It was a humid summer Sunday. Em and I took two buses to a second hand store in the outer suburbs that boasted a fill-a-bag-for-10-bucks policy and had gender neutral change rooms. We jammed ourselves into one tiny cubicle and tried on everything that appealed to us. There was no limit, except maybe our wallets. It was incredible.
Em and I turn around to see a very strong smile. The vest fits them well and they’ve let down their hair so it cascades over their shoulders and back.
“The scissors are for your hair,” I say. “In case you want to cut it.”
“Oh! I thought they were to make the top look more distressed.” And with that, they turn around and show us some jagged holes cut into the fabric. “But I think I’d like to cut my hair too!”
We spend a good deal of time looking through video tutorials on my phone and instructing our friend from afar. The end result is a shoulder-length bob and short fringe. The discarded lumps of glossy blond hair are scattered across their back and the vanity table below. Some are even drooping over the photo frame like wilted flowers. Our friend makes a decision to leave their lipstick crimson, and to add some more rips and holes to their new shorts.
We make plans for the following day to help them trial some names and pronouns.
“Neither of them have to be permanent,” I remind them. “You can cycle through as many names, pronouns and identities as you want.”
“Do you think they’ll be okay?” I ask Em.
We’re cuddled up in their bed after a late dinner of leftover sandwiches and squashed chocolate bars, which Em found in the back pocket of their cargo pants.
“As much as anyone ever can be,” they respond, wrapping their arm closer around me. “But at least they have us.”
“And we have each other,” I echo.
“Maybe one day they’ll even venture out of the photo,” says Em. “I wonder if that’s possible.”
After a pause, I sigh and I turn my head away from Em’s. They squeeze my shoulder. “What is it?”
“You’ll think I’m weird,” I mumble.
Em hugs me closer and I can smell their cinnamon aura again as it skirts past my nostrils. “You are weird. But you can also tell me anything.”
I hesitate, opening and shutting my mouth a couple of times like a hungry fish. “I guess I’m jealous of you.”
I hear an incredulous chuckle behind me. “You’re what?”
“Your scar spoke to me last night. It helped us today. It made a difference. And my crappy glitter didn’t do a goddamn thing.”
Em sits up as much as they can in the cramped space. They push me over onto my back so I can see straight into their stern gaze. “Now listen here,” Em says, giving me a little poke in the ribs with their finger. “You helped today! There’s no way I can contort my body enough to listen to my own scar. That’d required some advanced-level yoga. Plus, you thought to bring along scissors. Genius!”
I make a grumbling noise to show I don’t believe them, but my skin is slightly flushed.
“And who’s to say your glitter won’t help us next time?”
“Of course there’ll be a next time,” says Em. They ease themselves onto the bed again and coil themselves around me. I can feel their breath against my cheek as they say, “We have to keep helping our new friend. And who’s to say there aren’t other trapped souls in other pictures in other rooms of this house.”
“Or maybe trapped unicorns?”
Em giggles. “What is it with you and unicorns? But sure, maybe there’s some unicorns in our future that need saving.”
Em pulls my arm towards them and puts a soft kiss against my glittered wrist. We go to sleep spooning one another and I dream of oatmeal-coloured ponies leaping in the sky through swells of glitter clouds.
“Glitter and Leaf Litter” (© Rae White) was published in Issue 9 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.