My first story with a transgender main character, that’s something to celebrate! I’ll be honest I wasn’t sure if I was the right person to write this one. Maybe it would be better in the hands of someone else, including the future me a year from now. But you’ve got to do things that scare you once in a while, so here’s current me’s take on the idea.

So I hid him in the closet. What the hell was I supposed to do, stand him in the living room and tell everyone he’s a coffee table? Don’t be stupid.

Not like I used the closet for much. The left-hand door was seized so bad on its track I couldn’t get it open to start with. The right didn’t work much better, but at least it opened most of the way. Had to drag everything I had out so I could fit him in, which made me work up a hell of a sweat. The sun was around to the front of the apartment by that time, and it was already baking. So I threw a bunch of blankets on top of him for camouflage and shut him in.

At first glance, having windows all the way across the front of the place was a great idea. Then you realized the cheap anchors set into the concrete ceiling won’t hold up anything but the sheerest of drapes. Not enough to keep out the sun that burned in for the whole afternoon. The heat was welcome in the dead of winter; the edge of the floor that extended past the building foyer below turned chill and the cheap windows filled with frost. In the spring and summer my room was a sauna. Well, if he didn’t like it he could find somewhere else, I did my bit.

There was still time before I had to get started on supper so I headed for the shower. Tracy was in the living room, thankfully supplied with real curtains, reading a book.

“What’s on for tonight,” she asked without looking up.

“Falafel,” I told her, pulling towels and the food processor out of the hall closet. The kitchen for our apartment wasn’t a separate room. Instead it was one wall of the living room with about a metre of linoleum between the cupboards and the carpet. We managed well enough, but storage space was at a premium and we had to find alternate places to put some items.

“Not bad,” she said. “But you could stand more variety. Learn to make some other stuff too.”

“Not happening,” I said over my shoulder as I headed down the hall. “You want variety, go to Kel. He’ll make you steamed sunflower seeds or something.”

“Well, lay off that yogurt for me. I’ve got some donair sauce left in the fridge I need to use up. I’ll have that.”

I made a face at the sacrilege but let it slide. Tracy’s taste buds might put on backwards in my opinion, but I knew she wasn’t serious about what I cooked. Mamma’s recipes were pretty much the only connection I had left to her, and she knew how important that was. Besides, Alan liked Lebanese dishes and she relied on his goodwill as much as anyone.

Getting clean helped my mood a bit, although I still resented having to share my space with the man. At least he was content to stay where he was, and I didn’t need to make extra food.

I was all dried off and in the middle of mixing everything up when my cell went off. It was Ashley’s ring, so I knew it was about the man in my closet. Maybe he couldn’t stand the heat after all.

“Zakia, he’s dreaming,” she said. “Let your bunch know. I’ve still got calls to make so I’ll check in later, okay?”

I blinked a couple of times after she hung up, still stirring the spaghetti sauce I was working on. I blinked again at the sauce. When did I learn to make that? Then my brain finally caught up. I turned to where Tracy sat, somehow having learned to knit in the past few minutes. To say nothing of producing half a sweater in that time.

“It’s a dream dude,” I told her as I turned off the burner and headed for the bathroom.

The same old face looked back at me from the mirror, except now it was a different same old face. Not much different, but enough if I sat the regular me and this me side by side I tell the difference. Only the hair stood out, longer than I’d been able to grow it so far and a shade of red that never occurred to me to try. I remembered grabbing the wrong one in the drugstore, then getting all stubborn and doing it anyway, deciding I liked it after all. I also remembered not doing any of that.

I came back to the living room and called the others to let them know what was up. They were as surprised as Tracy seemed to be, still staring at the yarn in her hands. No wonder, it was their first time with this.

Once I cut the call, I returned to the stove. The pot of sauce sat there like it knew how insulting it was. I dumped it in the trash, even though I knew it wouldn’t exist pretty soon. The red hair though, that part I liked.

“My bunch,” as Ashley put it, were my roommates. Technically Alan and his boyfriend Kel were the only roommates, since I couldn’t put my name on the lease. One of the drawbacks to having no ID. They saw Tracy as more of a guest than a tenant, although in my mind we were all equals.

Tracy was a woman in her early 30s with blue hair, lopsided smile. She and I had a good rapport, and even Kel got along with her. Her affability was probably how she managed to move from one place to the next without wearing out her welcome. She’d been on our sofa for about four months by the time the man showed up. I gave her two or three more before her nomad instincts kicked in and she was sleeping in someone else’s living room. Everyone in our circle played host to her at least once. This time was simply our turn.

Alan was my best friend and Tracy’s direct opposite. He craved permanence, even if he never got it much. Maybe that’s why he clung so hard to Kel, and to me in a different way. We ran into each other at this grotty old rooming house near the Commons, and hit it off pretty much immediately. He was a cheery guy who looked older due to his prematurely thinning hair, which we made fun of him for, and an overall English professor kind of look. He was the first one to really back me up when I decided to go full-time as my real self and accepted my reasons for not pursuing my birth certificate. A good third of who I am is probably thanks to his support.

Kel came into the picture later and we didn’t get on well at first. To me, he was this stuck up hipster asshole who didn’t deserve to get with my best friend. He saw me as this weird trans woman attached to his boyfriend, which was true as far as it goes. He thought we were exes or something, but couldn’t quite figure it out. Eventually we got over ourselves after I figured out that he was wasn’t a hipster at all, even though he dressed like one. More important than that, he cared about Alan a lot. His stiffness was because he was awkward, and took a while to process new things. Not his fault, and I stopped getting in their way so much after that.

They got together through Ashley in the first place, which first of all didn’t surprise me at all. Second, I should have trusted her judgement that he was a good one. In one way or another, all four of us owed her in one way or another. Whether that was for good advice, giving us a line on an apartment or a job opening, or just passing on some toy that she had that would make us a little happier, she was always on the lookout to help the people she cared about. We helped each other too of course, and she was only too happy to facilitate that.

Ashley lived in subsidized housing while she jumped through Social Services’ endless hoops. That meant a crap apartment in a crap part of town, something a lot of the people around her could sympathize with. We’d all lived in similar places. Hers was one big room, with a little bedroom and bath off one side, and a built-in kitchenette like ours. Everything about it pointed to the builders and owners not caring about the place. Peeling linoleum with scars made by dozens of past tenants, walls a grubby, industrial off-white, single pane windows set in wood frames that should have been replaced a decade ago. The bare minimum for the municipality to provide; they’d go lower if they could.

She made the place her own, despite its flaws. That whole big front room became a maze with walls built out of boxes and shelves salvaged from who knows where. There were mildly damaged dividers from some office cubicle and rusting metal shelves rescued out of someone’s basement. Cardboard paperback displays that she rescued from bookstores stood here and there, repurposed as display cases for toys and figurines. She liked to trade those with with people as a hobby. In the middle of it all, waiting like an oracle in the one comfortable chair, was Ashley. We would come to her seeking a G.E.D. textbook or a second-hand coffee maker, or just a kind word when we were up against the wall. She had a knack for having what we needed at any given time and we all came to trust her.

So when Rey found the man, he didn’t think to go anywhere else.

He never had a name. It wasn’t something we decided on out loud, but the three us understood and agreed all the same.

I was at Ashley’s place that day to deliver some maamoul that I made the day before. She liked mamma’s recipe for the kind with walnuts, so I always made a few extra to share. We were settling in with a cup of tea when Rey burst in.

Rey – his real name was Rehan, but he never even called himself that – was a man who usually kept himself on a short leash. He was working on putting himself through college part-time, scraping together tuition with whatever jobs he could find, and didn’t allow himself a lot of leeway in the name of his goal. He was always reliable and we rarely, if ever, saw him lose control. So Rey was the very last person you’d expect to say “There’s a man in my trunk!”

So there we were, the three of us, standing there behind his old Hyundai. Damned if there wasn’t a man in there. Probably the most unremarkable man I’d ever seen if it weren’t for the fact that he was curled up in the foetal position trunk of my friend’s car. He had short, sandy blonde hair and appeared to be a bit shy of six foot. All he wore was bland gray coveralls, the kind a mechanic might use. If he got up and walked away, I’d lose him in a crowd in about a minute.

Ashley provided some cardboard to cover him up, and the two of us wrestled him upstairs like the worst FedEx package ever. Turns out when people says that bodies are heavy they’re totally right, but at least he didn’t flop around to make things even worse. He just stayed curled in on himself like those ultra-real statues the gallery gets in once and a while. Difference was, this one was the real thing.

“He’s breathing,” Rey said, expecting the question. “Got a pulse too, I checked. But that’s it, he doesn’t respond to anything. For all I can tell, he doesn’t even know I brought him here.”

“So where did he come from?” I was indeed a master of the obvious. “You didn’t find him set out on the curb.”

Rey shook his head, a bit more in control of himself by now. “I was helping my friend Peter out. He has a labourer’s job that he doesn’t want to lose, but since he’s sick I filled in for the day. Nobody else was on shift so we could get away with it. So I’m cleaning up and I find a shipping container with a big hold torn in the side, the loader probably scraped it against something. I took a look to see if everything was okay, and he was inside.”

“Did you tell anyone else?” asked Ashley.

He shook his head. “All I could think of was getting him out of there. Whoever put him in there couldn’t have anything good in mind, so I guess I panicked. Looking back on it, that’s the weird part. I was so sure he was in danger, but now I don’t know why.”

“You did the right thing bringing him here. The question now is…”

We never found out what the question was, since she trailed off, lifting her head as if listening for something. A strange look came over her as she looked at Rey, then me. She grabbed her cane, and made her way to the front window.

“Rey, what do you see out there?”

He was puzzled as he joined her. “Nothing? Just my car, I guess. Why?”

“Rey, you don’t drive a Volvo.”

He stared blankly at her for a second, and so did I, before we both whipped our heads outside at the same time. It was true, there was a Volvo down there, and that was the car Rey drove for the past three years. But at the same time, I knew that wasn’t his car, and I’d never seen it before.

Looking back at Rey, I saw he was different as well. His outfit, the shape of his beard. they weren’t the same as they were a moment ago. Yet they were the same as they always were, I just didn’t notice until now. I looked at Ashley expecting the same.

She was mercifully unchanged, but I couldn’t say the same for her room. Like Rey, everything was similar but filled with subtle differences. The layout was as I remembered, more or less, but the contents of her shelves were all shifted about. It was like someone took a clear plastic overlay like in those old encyclopedias, and laid it on top of reality. It was almost identical, but parts of it didn’t line up perfectly so I could see both realities – and remember how both came about – at the same time.

While I stood there frozen, trying to get my brain to accept what was going on, Ashley made her way back to the man, still sitting there on the floor. She laid a hand on his back and motioned for us to stay quiet. After a while she looked up again. “He’s dreaming,” she said. “That’s what he does. That’s all he does.”

I had no idea what to say to that, and she filled in the silence. “He’s dreaming us.”

“I don’t understand.” That was Rey, visibly straining to keep calm. “What does dreaming about us have to do with…whatever this is?”

“Not about, Rey. I meant what I said, he’s dreaming us. We, and our reality, are his dreams. Look, they’re already fading.”

It was true. As I turned in place, everything began to shift back the way it was before. It was a surprisingly smooth process, the changes fading away like, well, a dream. I knew without looking that Rey’s Hyundai was back in front too, and he never drove anything else. It felt like deja vu and encountering something completely outside my experience at the same time; the most disturbing part was that it didn’t feel disturbing.

I didn’t realize I raised my hand until both of them turned to look at me, expectantly. “I, uh, this is really weird, right?”

That brought Ashley a bit of a smile. “Very weird, yes.”

“So what now,” said Rey. “Do the three of us keep going through this every few hours, or what?

“I’m afraid so, but not so often I think. It isn’t as if he’s having a normal night’s sleep, there probably won’t be another for hours, maybe even days. And it won’t just be us, either. Don’t ask me how I know, but everyone close to me is involved now. He and I have some kind of connection.”

“I can’t believe any of this,” I said. “So we’ve got to put up with this jerk screwing around with our lives and changing things around whatever he damn well feels like? That’s nasty!”

Rey looked like he was on the verge of agreeing, but Ashley stepped in. “He’s not doing it on out of malice. It’s more like he’s giving us choices that we can take or leave however they want. Whatever we don’t hang on to will fade away like any other dream.”

“I still don’t like it,” I said, still pouting.

“We’re all going to have to make adjustments.”

That kept us quiet while we thought through the implications. Rey catching on first wasn’t really a surprise.

“What did you mean, we choose what to hang on to? Don’t the dreams all go away?”

Ashley smiled. “Think of a temporary tattoo. You wet the skin, rub it on, and the design transfers, right? So what if you don’t wet or rub, and just lay it on your arm?”

“Nothing happens.”

“Right. So what if you only do that to part of the sheet? That’s the only part that stays.”

“So what you’re saying is, the part we ‘wet and rub’ becomes real.”

“That’s right.” Ashley sighed and settled back into her chair. She gave her now-cold tea a wistful look. “That’s the theory, anyway. If you decide that some element of the dream is the actual reality, the old version, along with the choices that you made to get to that point, are the ones that fade away. So with your car, all you have to do is decide that’s what you drive, and that will be the way it is. The trick is, nobody except me knows there’s a dream happening unless someone calls your attention to it.”

I caught on first this time. “You’re the only one who knows, because you’ve got some weird kind of bond with him.”

“Right,” she said. “It’s very faint and I can’t really describe it, but he and I have some sort of understanding. I think as he gets to know us all better, that will grow as well. But we can let that slide, the problem right now is, where do we keep him? I’ve got social workers and other folks through all the time so it can’t be here. Not Rey either, if someone comes looking they’ll go to his place first.”

Two faces turned slowly toward me, smiles growing.

“Oh, no! No way! Never!”

I had a man living in my closet. No problem. Another day in the life of Zakia.

At least we proved Ashley right. Having red hair wasn’t so bad, once I got used to the idea that I already wore it that way for the past year. The others also picked relatively small things to test the water. Until then they had a hard time believing what I told them, even though Alan really didn’t want to doubt me. Seeing is believing, or at least a history of shaving his head and not stressing over his stupid bald spot is believing.

Altogether the whole group affected was about a dozen people, not counting Ashley. None of them except her, Rey, and my three knew anything about the man. I felt it wasn’t fair to leave them in the dark since they were living with him. Well, and Tracy helped me wrestle him into the closet. Not sure how I could be subtle about it after that. As for the rest, I don’t know what she told them but they all seemed to buy it.

Things got pretty crazy after that. Like Ashley said, the first couple of dreams were warm-ups while he got to know us, and then it all went off the deep end. I’m not talking silly things like the model of a car or a shad of hair dye. This was full-blown, deep identity stuff, and by about four or five dreams in everything was up for grabs.

Alan and Tracy were the most adventurous, probably the thing they had most in common. They tried on new traits, histories, even sexualities as if it were nothing, comparing notes with each other every time. Their rapport took me by surprise until I figured out they were opposites after all.

What Tracy cared about wasn’t changing who she was, but her choices in the past, and what happened as a result. What if she didn’t move so much? What if she didn’t like sex? What if she transitioned, like me? Every time, I’d find her altered in some significant way, even though we were friends every time. One time I came home to find she’d become a black woman, thanks to her mother marrying some fellow from Trinidad. That one bothered me a lot, even though she said that it was someone her mother actually might have married, and he was a pretty good dad. Still, it felt like she was trivializing something that she shouldn’t mess with, and I didn’t like it.

Fortunately the next dream she shifted back, saying something about how it didn’t feel right to change her mom’s decisions. A later dream of my own where my mamma now came from Portugal and had a happier life gave me a lot to think about on the matter.

In contrast to Tracy, Alan didn’t care about the choices but the results. He wanted to try out everything, so whenever he had the opportunity to alter himself he took it. I don’t know where the urge came from, it seemed so different from the Alan I always knew, the stable cis gay man who wanted nothing more than putting down roots. Yet here he was putting on selves like a change of shirts. He and I talked about gender a lot back when we first got together, and while he was curious and supportive, I never got the impression he felt any dissatisfaction with his identity. To see him choosing to become trans or genderqueer or asexual on a whim was a hard thing for me to understand.

Poor Kel had it even worse, since this was his boyfriend after all. He wasn’t someone who thought well on his feet, which I originally mistook for being stuck up. In reality he needed time to accept change, yet now he was in the middle of a tornado made of it. The kind of choices he made during that time said a lot about him, mostly little shifts that didn’t affect much. His decision to become an artist, which made sketches of us pop up all over the apartment, was one of the biggest. But he loved Alan and wasn’t willing to let that go, so against his usual nature he held on to that as his only lifeline.

A few dreams later, when Alan decided e wanted to settle on being agender, Kel took the plunge and chose to become pansexual in response. It’s nice when things work out.

Out of the four of us, my changes were the most focused. Lots of options presented themselves to me but I found that only one mattered to me: pushing back the age I started transition as far as possible. In the original world I was well past 20 when I started, and some part of me regretted waiting so long. So now that I could change it, I found I needed to. It became an obsession, and the only thing I wasn’t willing to sacrifice in pushing that date back, even by weeks, was mamma’s recipes.

No matter what choices I made, those were the only thing that connected me to her. As I forced myself further and further back, decisions and consequences shifting all around me, we always ended up estranged. Sometimes she’d kick me out, sometimes I’d leave under my own power because things became unbearable. No matter what, we parted on bad terms and never spoke again. In a few realities she even died, ending any chance of reconciliation. For every time my family came apart my gender was at the heart of it. That was the hardest part of the whole experience.

If I didn’t have the support of my friends, I don’t know if I could have continued. Somehow though, no matter what we chose or who we became, the four of us all stayed together. Our overall relationship shifted here and there but the core support and caring never changed. Sometimes I wondered if that was how the man set things up, or if it was Ashley herself.

She was the strangest of us all. Everyone else re-invented themselves, sometimes again and again. Even Rey did, in his way. But she didn’t. Nothing about her changed, unless you count the growing connection to the man. She told me about it from time to time, but never in detail. Her health was the same, she still needed a cane to get around, and she still fought constantly against the municipality to get the support she needed.

It was her apartment that changed instead. Somehow that became her surrogate, as if it were an extension of herself. In a way it always was. The dimensions grew every time I visited, and the maze of books and toys, salvaged coffee makers and even the occasional refrigerator, became ever more complex. It became a challenge to even find her sometimes. It felt like her apartment took up a whole floor of the building after a while. It wasn’t possible, but I couldn’t deny it was real.

“Get out. Now.”

Her voice was strangely calm, but what she said was as powerful as a shout. Those three words were enough to get me out of bed, despite having rolled into it after a night shift delivering papers only four hours before. If she had shouted, I probably would have bolted into the hall without even grabbing my clothes, which I’m sure would have amused someone.

“They’re coming for him,” Ashley said. “You four need to stay clear or you’ll be in danger. They’re not looking for trouble, but if you get caught in their way they won’t even blink.”

I dressed in a hurry while still talking. “I think Alan is at work, but I’ll give him a shout to make sure. Kel’s got a show downtown, so he won’t be back until tonight; I’ll call him too. Tracy’s still here and I’ll drag her out by the hair if I have to. You going to be okay?”

“I’m fine. When you talk to the others, warn them there’s one last dream on the way, and it’s going to be a big one. The man let me know that they weren’t going to exploit him again, so he’s burning himself out with one big push. You’ll know when it hits this time, be ready for it. I’m calling everyone else to let them know.”

“Will do,” I said. By now I was dressed and headed into the living room. Tracy caught the seriousness of my tone and kept quiet. “Get your shit together,” I told her. “I’ll explain outside.”

“One last thing,” said Ashley. “This is important. Come to my place once it’s all done, I’ve got something for you to do. Don’t tell anyone, you got it? Not even your roommates.”

Her tone didn’t allow for any disagreement, and the line went dead before I could reply. I stared at the phone for a second before I remembered I had no time to waste.

The two of us hit the streets and started walking, trying to put as much distance between us and trouble as we could. We settled on the diner on Robie Street, hoping that was out of the danger zone, frantically calling Alan and Kel on the way. Both of us called the others as well, doubling up on Ashley’s efforts. Neither of us said anything about the man, even to Rey. No sense borrowing trouble.

Once we finished, we settled in for coffee and banana cream pie – about the only European comfort food I would accept – and waited for the dream.

It felt like a wave washing over us. Like Ashley said, this was nothing like any of the others. It was powerful and opened up more possibilities than ever before. Dozens of lives spread out before us, and what seemed like millions of choices leading up to them. I could barely comprehend it at first. My brain couldn’t take it all in. When I started to grasp at least some of it I was stunned at how much potential I held in my hands. If this was what the man was capable of, no wonder they wanted him so bad.

I don’t know what Tracy chose. All I know is what I chose.

My life could have been different in so many ways. If even one tiny variable changed before I was born, I would have been a cis girl like all the others. I would have grown into a woman without having to convince anyone of the fact and I never would have lost my family. But that was a step too far, and the core of me rejected it. How I was born had value; like mamma’s cooking, I wasn’t willing to give it up. Who I was, what I was, those depended on where I started from. So I chose as well as I could, without giving up that essence.

Mamma was still gone, I couldn’t avoid our parting no matter how hard I tried. This time though, I managed to find the path that allowed us a relationship up until that point. When she left this life we were mother and daughter for real. I transitioned with her support, starting when I was 11 years old, thanks to the support of a counsellor who knew the process and helped us with the hardest parts. We still had difficulties, like family does. There were times when it seemed like it would all fall apart, but we stood by each other until the end. Her death was sad, but now I had closure and good memories that were worth the pain.

Those were the only things I chose. The only things that mattered. Everything else, right down to my fondness for coconut cream pie, could take care of itself. Nothing but trivia, as far as I was concerned.

After it was over, the two of us sat staring for a while. Not really at each other, I don’t think either of us were focusing on much for the first few minutes. We must have looked strange to anyone who noticed us, since from their perspective nothing happened. Two women walked into a diner and just sat there slack-jawed. Good joke.

Both of us looked different. We were different. I knew that once I took a moment to remember I’d know what changed and why, but for now my brain wasn’t up to it. She gave me a smile, indicating the same. All we could do at that point was accept it.

Neither of us spoke. We got up together, settled our bills, and walked off in opposite directions. Anyone would need time alone after something like that.

I headed straight for Ashley’s place. Even if she didn’t ask, I would have gone. I knew there was something in that dream that was different from everyone else’s. Something meant only for me, which drew me forward. She didn’t need to tell me, that was merely insurance.

The door wasn’t locked so I walked straight in. I don’t know what I expected to see, but I wasn’t surprised to find myself in an empty room. I guess I should have been, these things always end with a twist, after all. But really, all it took was a little thought to see where things were headed.

The room was the same as it was before everything happened, except all the shelves and boxes were gone. It seemed small, even with nothing in it. Almost nothing.

There were three items in the room: a pile of cardboard, a mover’s dolly, and her.

She sat on the floor, curled around herself with her arms around her knees. She didn’t look up. She couldn’t, not any more. All she could do now was dream.

Packing her up was simple, and I found a set of car keys under the cardboard. Handy. The dolly made getting her downstairs easy, although fitting her in the back of the Honda parked out front was a lot more effort for one person. I managed though, as she knew I would.

Slipping into the driver’s seat, adjusted perfectly for my height, I checked the glove compartment. A full set of ID, something I never had before, and registration documents for the car. Neither were in my name, or at least not my old name. These were for my new identity, named after my mamma. It was a sweet gesture on her part.

Under the registration was banking information, which showed a healthy balance. I was to be taken care of, it seemed. She wouldn’t want to see anyone go through what she did.

On my way out of town, a pile of trash on the curb caught my eye and I pulled over. Leaning against the bags was a perfectly good bookcase. A bit banged up from use and missing a lower shelf, but otherwise sturdy. It had character, so I loaded it into the back and set off on my way.

Thinking about what else I needed to collect, I pulled onto the highway and headed west.

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