Shells in my Pocket
I can taste dust. The kind of toxic dust that makes cancer bloom in the branches of your lungs. I scramble for my mask and wonder how long I’ve been out here without it. My rope-bridge spine creaks as I stand. My shape is dry on the ground and my front damp with tingling dew. I wipe my face and test a cough. I feel ok.
I have never been this far from the city limits, so far that I can’t even see the rooftops. The dry earth is packed with shells bigger than any I have ever seen. This was much deeper than any of our drilling expeditions ventured; only the best-funded projects came this far. My filter probably won’t last long enough to get me home. I pull my shirt off, unbuttoning a cuff as it catches on my swollen hand. Most of the buttons on the front are gone and the shoulder seam is torn. My ribs ache. I fold the body of the shirt up towards the collar and use the sleeves to tie it around my head, over the mask that covers my nose and mouth. That might help. The neck of my tank top is stretched and droops to reveal my binder.
There are tyre treads on the pale sand. I follow them. I wonder if Mim has noticed that I’m gone yet. The knees of my suit trousers are dirty and ripped, the clean crease lost. My head aches. I keep walking.
The office was full when they’d come. I was heading a meeting and my boss had smiled at me, the others were scribbling notes. I was doing well. Another tick in the promotion box, another step toward making myself indispensable. When they walked in wearing uniforms and spoke to Mark, the receptionist, I was worried, but I kept talking. I’d been here for years, they’d be enquiring about something else.
My stomach rumbles and I wish I had my gym bag with me. My protein bars and apples are probably still under my desk. The sun is high, the air arid. Sweat stings the cut at my temple, my mask rubs.
It’s beautiful out here really. If you were rich you could pay for a fully filtered SUV to bring you out for a tour with a scientist to tell you all about what was once here. If you were really rich they could take you out to the old reefs, to see the gnarled arthritic fingers of coral, bleached, and still reaching toward the sky. Or even the protected landmark ships, held up with scaffolds to stop them listing to the side. They weren’t made for this. Neither were we.
I stop to rest. Just sit where I was standing on the tyre tracks. I wonder if they are real. I run my fingers through the hot sandy earth to disrupt them and find a cupped shell buried beneath. It’s almost the size of my palm, orange corrugation on the convex side, pinky-white and smooth on the concave. I imagine it filled with water. I could pour the cool wetness into my mouth, over my head, let it trickle into my ears and make a train of my pulse. I imagine it still whole with its other side connected at the hinge, large enough for me to climb into like Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, close the lid and hide in the slick darkness. Oysters turn dirt into pearls. The Royal Museum of Oceanic Remembrance taught us that. The oyster was once a visual and verbal euphemism for the vagina. No museum taught me that. A day of stubble itches beneath my mask. I stand up and keep walking.
Mim and I moved in together a year ago. We’d been dating a year and two months when her lease was up. It was exciting, of course, it was. I’d never lived with a girlfriend before. She had, but only briefly. It was scary too. Up until then, she’d have been able to claim ignorance, to not know. We’d discussed it carefully, I’d given her every chance to back out. She was aware of the risks and willing to try anyway.
Our new flat was close to both of our jobs. The bedroom had green walls which clashed with the blue carpet so we painted them white. The living room was blue, but the floor was wood, so that was fine. We filled it with lamps and books and a sofa in front of the telly. She loved cushions, but I didn’t get the point and always put them on the floor.
The kitchen was small, but enough for us. I’d sit on the worktop and watch her cook, she’d lean against the still-warm oven and watch me wash up. We spent most evenings on the sofa either reading or streaming channels to our screen. Sometimes we just listened to music and kissed. Once we danced, drawing closer, bodies pressing together until I had to eat her out on the sofa, her legs tight around my head blocking out everything but the bass.
As I walk I find more shells, the colours and shapes vary. Some are smaller than my pinkie nail. I collect them, filling my pockets, turning up the bottom of my tank top the hold the larger ones in a pouch. My eyes stay on the floor as I follow the tracks, I don’t want to look up. I don’t want to find that I still can’t see the city.
I wonder what I’ll do if I ever make it back. They know who I am now. My name, my ID, my job, our flat, none of it’s safe. What if they’ve arrested Mim? She could say we’d been waiting for marriage, that we’d never seen each other naked, that we changed in the bathroom and slept in pyjamas. Would she think to say that? She’s smart, she’ll be fine.
It’s been getting steadily cooler as the sun sinks in the sky. As it is setting fully I finally look up. My neck fizzes like sherbet as it stretches. I can see the roofs of the city in the distance. Night is darker here than I’ve ever experienced. There’s no glow of streetlights, no blur of headlamps, no electronic embers of standby.
My mouth is dry and my lips are peeling. I need to drink or I won’t make it. I bend down, setting the larger shells I’ve collected on the sand. Undoing my trousers, I crouch carefully above them. My urine is dark from dehydration and smells stronger than usual. I take a breath and drag my shirt and mask down my chin, wiping the sweat that’s gathered there. I carefully lift a shell to my face. Pinching my nose, I tilt the warm liquid into my mouth and swallow quickly. Repeating the action with the other shells is less of a shock than the first one. It’s bitter but better than dying. I replace my mask and stack the shells inside one another by touch and leave them next to me.
I’m cold and exhausted. The wind has picked up over the course of the day and bites through the thin cotton of my top. I dig a small ditch, lie down in it and pull the excavated sand back over my body, leaving my neck and head clear. Normally I wriggle in my sleep, steal the covers. Mim complains. Tonight I’ll be still.
When I was growing up it was normal. It had become almost expected that children would blur their way in and out of various expressions. Nanna told us that in the time of her Nanna, people were expected to be one or the other and they weren’t even allowed to choose which. It’s hard enough now that we have to Declare, but to have no choice at all was unthinkable.
My brother settled at eighteen and never had to Declare. My school friend, Tilla, settled and Declared before she moved away for university. She left her old name at her parent’s house and claimed Tilla from then on. I settled at ten but refused to Declare. I didn’t see why I should I have to. There was no difference between my brother and me, aside from some inches of flesh. I was Sam and that was all and a small patch of my body shouldn’t affect my rights when no one else cared.
At university I found someone to provide me with a new ID.
Name: Sam Privet
Date of birth: 22/3/2237
The doctoring of my sex made me equal, the last word made me real. People had always accepted my gender, my Mum said she’d known when I was two. But to have to Declare it? To have to tell some bureaucrat about what may or may not be between my legs, something that hadn’t mattered since I was born and likely wouldn’t matter again (except for the potential lower wage and extra management tests in every job). It was bullshit and I wasn’t taking part in it.
In my first year of undergrad, I joined an activist group to fight for the ban of Declaration. They were the ones that helped me get my ID. By the end of the second term, people had started asking too many questions. Staff kept an eye on us. I was worried that they’d discover the lie on my application and the falseness of my identification. I quit the group and watched over the next year as, one by one, they were disciplined, arrested or committed suicide. Leaving them is the thing I’m most ashamed of.
The sun wakes me as it rises. I push my way free of the sand, trying to shake it from my clothes and from where it itches under the edge of my mask. I can taste the gritty air, my filter is failing. I untie my shirt from around it and wrap it twice around my head instead of once. It’s tight; it pushes the edge of my mask deep into my cheeks.
I pick up my shells, wishing that they didn’t smell faintly of piss and tuck them back into the front of my tank top, turning up the bottom to hold them. The tracks are fainter now that the breeze has worked away at them for two days. My head feels tight and heavy but I can see the city. I might make it.
The shells eventually peter out and instead there are pebbles, then twigs and the occasional tree stump crumbling further with every year. Only the rich have trees now, in huge glass rooms with filtered water and a gardener to check the temperature. My mum took great care to look after her house plants. She’d given Mim and me a trailing spider plant when we’d first moved in together; they’re good for cleaning the air apparently.
I pick up a small grey stone that is smooth on one side and pitted on the other and tuck it into my bulging pocket. Walking has stopped making sense and I can’t work out how my body knows how to put one foot in front of the other. I’m not thinking about lifting my foot, swinging it forward and putting it down. I am just walking and my body knows how. I can feel my heartbeat in my tongue.
When they’d finished talking to Mark at reception they’d headed straight toward us in the meeting room. I’d just finished my report and sat down. They tapped on the glass door and strode in asking for me. Just some questions relating to a case of theirs and could I pop down to the station with them, nothing to worry about, but could I come immediately please? It was the end of the work day; most people not in the meeting were already pulling bags onto their shoulders and saying their goodbyes for the weekend. I’d looked at my boss and he’d nodded. I’d grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair, checking that my wallet and phone were still in the pockets, and told them to lead the way. We’d gone down to the garage and they’d taken me to their car. It wasn’t a police car. I opened my mouth to question it and a truncheon caught me at my temple.
I woke up on the sand.
I pushed myself to my knees, there was a van in front of me. The two officers were leant against the hood, no longer in uniform, and there was an older man standing in front of them, hands clasped behind his back. Upon seeing me move one of the officers grunted at him. He turned and I saw that his mask was of a newer design than mine, slimmer, with silver fittings that matched his hair. He walked slowly to where I was now kneeling upright. He looked at me, blinked and kicked me in the stomach. His face was calm as he watched me lying on my side gasping. He put his heel on my hand and asked me about my company’s recent test results.
They were published last month.
He put more weight on my hand, I gasped. He asked about the most recent test results. Last month’s were the only ones I knew about. He said I was lying, he put his full weight on my hand. I screamed, it burned, he twisted his heel. He demanded I tell him. I had nothing to tell. He twisted again. My mouth rushed with saliva and I felt my stomach roll. He lifted his foot and walked back towards the van. He gestured at the two men and they walked towards me.
My mouth is dry and my lips are peeling and trying to pee is just pressure and no liquid. I don’t feel as though I’m getting any closer. My feet are numb and I’m leaning forward into a stagger more than a walk. My good hand has cramped into a claw where I’ve been holding my top to carry the shells but I can’t bear to let them go. The mud is dry and pale and free of sand. I’ve been walking at an incline for hours. When I woke this morning I could see the city, I might still make it.
I don’t know how long they beat me. Thumping blows to my head, kicks to my ribs, feet on my throat until the world was dim and I pissed myself. He demanded to know what I was hiding. Was it worth it? Would anyone even care? He told them to stop and knelt next to me. He pushed my sweaty hair from my face and tilted his head so he could look into my eyes. What are you hiding? Why won’t you just tell me? This can all stop. Don’t you want that? I nodded. He smiled. Just tell me. I stayed silent. He slid his hand down my arm, took my broken hand and squeezed. He squeezed and I cried and I thought I’d be sick in my mask. He squeezed and smiled and I screamed.
I’m female. I’m female. My ID is a lie. I’m female. Just stop.
He let go. He tore my shirt open and dragged at my tank top to reveal the binder that holds my small breasts down. He pawed at my crotch, feeling past the padding in my underwear to where my body is a lie. He laughed. This is what you’ve been hiding? What about the test results? I shook my head, there were tears running across my cheeks and into my ears. I don’t know. I don’t know about any tests. His nose flared, his lips curled, he slapped me. Cunt. He stood and leant down over me. He pulled my mask down. He stepped back. He raised his foot above my head.
The sun is sinking again. I should probably be cold. My eyes have blurred but I can hear the rattle of the shells as they move in their pouch. My mouth is dry and my lips are peeling and my mask doesn’t seem to be having any effect. The sun is sinking and I should probably be cold. I look up and I’m at the gates. I wonder what’s happened to Mim.
Emma Hutson is a PhD candidate who applies Trans Theory to trans-authored fiction. She has stories published in The C Word: An anthology of writing from Cardiff and Severine Literary Journal. She was an editorial reader for A Capella Zoo and is currently editing a collection of papers exploring the body in society.