Chapter 1 – The Exit
Clare threw the letter from her boss on the table, then threw herself down on the sofa. Muffled swearing poured forth as she remembered a second too late that, yes, it hurts when you land face down. Burying herself deeper in the cushions she let out a wail which caused banging to come through the wall from the neighbours. “Stupid bloody cheap apartments”, she grumbled, first quietly, then loud enough for them to hear.
Resignedly she switched to just swearing under her breath for a few minutes. This letter from her employer, the one who she’d moved across the world for, was not positive. Termination with one week’s notice. Don’t bother to come back to the office, he’d added bluntly. She flashed back to when she’d got the offer back in England. She’d been sat in her dismal house-share as water streaked down from the leaking roof, wondering if the peeling wallpaper had started to really, truly mould this time. Trying to find the enthusiasm to ring the landlord, again, and there it was, like a fucking shooting star. Come to the US, it said. Come here and make a shit ton more money.
She stuck her arm out and flailed about until she found the letter, dragging it back and lifting her head up just to check for the several hundredth time that it really did say what she thought it said. “Fuuuuuuck,” she wailed, dumping her head back down on the page, crumpling it beneath her and into the cushions. She hadn’t even outed herself yet. Cis folks could be incredibly dense, and sure, no one had questioned the fact that her hair was gradually getting longer and that she was developing – let’s be honest here – breasts. Even though she continued to use male pronouns and her not yet deadname, her co-workers hadn’t said a thing.
Although her new boss? Fuck. When he’d taken over and said the company needed to focus on eliminating its leftwing bias, she’d worried. He’d shown up with a list of right wing clients he wanted to woo, and the very moment he’d met her he’d looked at her like he saw something he did not like. Like he’d stepped in one of the endless turds that scattered the streets around this bit of town. And then the complaints started. Her old boss couldn’t sing her praises enough. Now she was late, or she missed a meeting (that she’d not received an invite for, the arsehole), or her e-fucking-thirty-fucking-seven form was missing a fucking hyphen. She’d thought the big hoodie covered enough. It’d covered enough for most people. Clearly he saw straight through to her.
Clare took a moment to take a shaking breath. This wasn’t helping.
But she couldn’t go back to the UK. To the NHS. She couldn’t. She remembered when she’d looked up the laws in Washington and been stunned to realise she could just ask for hormones. Informed consent? Just say she wanted them, sign a form and it happened. The wording from the NHS hospital telling her she’d been waitlisted for a Gender Identity Clinic appointment, and that there was no hope of an appointment this year. Or next year. Or any bloody year, let’s be honest. That wording was etched in her memory.
It’d taken her months to work up the courage to order from the internet. She’d had to set up a bitcoin account to purchase from her grey market supplier; which had meant talking for far too long to the cryptocurrency fanatic at work. He’d thought her a kindred spirit as he extolled the virtues of the non-fiat nature of dot-coin, or whatever the hell it was called. Probably would have been less enthused if he’d found out she was only using it to buy hormones.
At any rate, the moment she saw the job offer arrive she’d seen an out and now she didn’t have to see Julian at all, let alone nod and smile while he explained, yet again, how crypto definitely wasn’t a ponzi scheme. And for a trans woman? US healthcare was an enormous step up on the NHS. One request at Planned Parenthood, and she even got lab tests with her hormones to check levels and liver function – it was all terribly fancy.
But now that was all completely screwed up. The skilled worker visa depended on her having a job, and so did the poxy apartment in a not terrible bit of the city. If you lent a bit you could kinda see a reflection of the Space Needle. Or at least, some of the lights on it. She debated for a second letting out a keening wail, but settled for just kicking the coffee table. Which hurt her toes. Damnit.
When her egg finally cracked – well – it’d cracked a long time ago but she’d spent a lot of time carefully reinforcing it because clearly she was the one trans person for whom transition would never work. Never mind all those transition timeline photos she’d enviously digested. Never mind all those stories of others who were convinced that they couldn’t, shouldn’t, wouldn’t ever transition – who had, and had come out happier and joyful in a way she’d never, ever experienced. No, she’d stayed in her life, building a wall of definitely valid reasons, brick by brick, to not change. Her life which seemed okay. It seemed like that was what life was: just fighting to put one foot in front of the other until one day you didn’t anymore.
But she hadn’t realised that the foundations – the self – she’d built it on was just a shell, one that she’d built to protect the real her inside. And it kind of had, but at the same time it’d hurt her. It’d kept her from feeling, from being, from truly existing in the world. And when it finally gave out, when she truly acknowledged that she existed and then, when all the patches and fixes and desperate props she’d put up to try and stave off collapse and dealing with the enormous elephant in the room of who she was collapsed, she was left with, well, her.
Who was she? She wasn’t entirely sure yet.
When the oestrogen, the grey market stuff, had arrived, she’d… she’d slipped that first pill under her tongue like they said to on the forums. It’d been an illicit thrill, like that one time she’d taken speed as a teenager.
That time she’d danced and danced and danced and fucking danced.
But she’d also been scared. What had she said? She couldn’t let herself lose control that much. She needed to keep driving this body around, and if she wasn’t in control who knew what she might let out.
But this time she slipped it under her tongue and felt…a euphoria…but also a nothing. Nothing changed that night. Nor the next day.
When things finally did shift, when changes finally arrived, they were subtle but immense. She’d grown up with the kind of TVs that took time to warm up and gave you fuzzy images on their rounded screens, the kind that came from Radio Rentals in a wood-grain cabinet with silver buttons on the front and the excitement of a remote control. And her emotions had been like that. Fuzzy. Vague. Colours washed out.
Slowly she gained high definition emotions. Big, roller coaster, fucking terrifying things. Sometimes the feelings were glorious. Joy like she’d never even imagined. Happiness – what even was that thing she’d felt before that she’d called happiness? But also fear. Sadness that sucked her down into deep dark oceanic trenches. And tears. So many bloody tears. Tears for who she thought she was, for who she was working to become. And with it a connection to self that she finally understood as being how others experienced existence. Not like remotely operating a robot, but being in and inhabiting this skin. This skin.
This skin that was lying on the pleather sofa, sticking to it. This skin with its face lying on a shitty letter from a shitty boss that made everything harder and could ruin her. She’d spent everything she had for this move and now… now she needed another job. Well, the boy that everyone else saw did.
Don’t lie, Clare. The man they see.
A shudder ran down her spine. Someone’d told her that HRT knocked years off your looks, made you look ten years younger. Said it was the magic of a second puberty. She held the thought in her mind. Maybe on Consensus? Perhaps on Mastodon? Maybe even on Twitter, although she’d abandoned that a long time ago. Did it really matter? At this point, did it really matter? The dark thought that she’d robbed not just ten, but twenty or thirty years from herself rose up and she attempted to crush it. Where would she be if she’d transitioned then? Where could she go if she actually managed to transition now, and didn’t just stay hidden behind him a little longer?
She scrabbled herself off the couch – that’s what it was called here, yeah? She’d get it right in future – and peeled off the hoodie. She flicked off the towel that still covered the mirror, its traitorous image something she still couldn’t often face. Although recently, sometimes, she was there. Like she’d been when she was a kid. She stared at the person in the image. Tried to be impartial.
Pulling the teeshirt tight, she thought breasts were definitely there. Even with the shirt baggy they were present. The sports bra was doing its job, but they were only deniable if you were willfully ignoring their existence. And there were curves, just the beginnings of them, but fat redistribution was definitely occuring. She’d been reminded that second puberty takes as long as puberty does for cis girls; to be patient. She wasn’t feeling patient anymore. But yes, hips, waist. Didn’t help that her diet had gone a bit to shit of late, but honestly, she had noticed that the reason her jeans didn’t really fit very well anymore wasn’t the weight – it was where the weight was.
Her eyes strayed up to her face. That was the hardest part. Seeing…him. Seeing him still there. But something had changed, something had softened? She was there too. Just fleeting glances mostly, but today she was there. She seemed stronger. More… more present? She held her eyes, waiting. Waiting for what, she didn’t know. The future seemed even less certain than it had a few months ago. Before the job came up. Before the move, before this shite apartment in the nice city.
She held her gaze. Longer than she ever had. She’d been in there screaming this whole time. This whole life. Maybe now was her moment? She felt the pit of her stomach drop in fear and anxiety. This was the moment. This was it. Fuck it. She was going to do it. She’d finally bloody well be Clare. What was there to lose? In this queer fucking city she would finally allow herself to be.
The chime of the doorbell shook her out of her reverie. She darted for the door and peered through the peephole. “I didn’t order pizza,” she shouted through the door. Turning away, she dropped herself more carefully back on the couch. It was time to plan a future.
A moment later her phone attempted to vibrate itself off the table. Grabbing it, she silently mouthed the caller ID. Prospect Pizza?
“Uh, hi? We wanted to check the address for delivery, our driver is outside and someone said you didn’t order pizza.”
“Well, I didn’t.” It bothered her how male she still sounded as she drifted back into her phone voice. Fuckit. Tonight she’d try some voice training. She hung up unceremoniously and dumped the phone onto the sofa next to her. No, damnit, couch. She’d fit in. Make an effort.
A few seconds later the phone rang again.
“What?” Clare’s tolerance had disappeared. This day was just going to suck, and given that there’s no way she could afford a pizza now anyway, this was just irritating.
“Can I just check we have the right number? 206 318 9674?”
“Uh, yeah, that’s this number. I didn’t order a pizza though. I couldn’t even afford it.” Well that slipped out unexpectedly. She must be more tired than she’d realised.
“Well, it’s for Clare Stenner, 583 Harrison Ave, apartment 614. Is that you?”
Clare dropped the phone like a hot brick. No-one knew that name. No one. She’d never shared it. Never written it down, even. Well. She’d tried a signature out when she’d been testing it out. Auditioning it for herself. Seeing if she fit its shape and if its shape fit her. But she’d burned those scraps of paper more than a decade ago.
“Are you still there?”
She scrabbled around and grabbed the phone. “Yeah. I guess that’s me. Does it say who ordered it?”
“Nope. Can you go open the door? Our driver needs to deliver other pizzas.”
Clare rolled her eyes, and, for the first time smiled at the local habit of prefixing bye with a short humming, and slowly walked to the door. Swinging it wide, the brunette turned to face her and –
Chapter 2 – Welcome Home?
Jesus wept, her head hurts. What the shitting shit happened last night? She considered motion – a brief experiment moving her head just off the pillow. Instantly, she concluded moving was a mistake. One she decided that she’d endeavour never to make again. There was some object playing some bloody pop song through crappy speakers far too loud and far too close and far too…oh, thank the gods, it stopped.
She lay, head sinking into the pillow, savouring the quiet and beginning to contemplate another attempt at movement. Moving was definitely something that had to happen, not least because at some point she’d have to pee. Not terribly unusual in itself, but odd in that she had no recollection of drinking last night. Certainly not enough to be black-out drunk. Worrying, considering the gradually dawning awareness that last night (and much of yesterday) was absent from her memory. Oh fuck, maybe she’d been roofied?
Oh gods, that pop song was back.
Recognition struck this time: Selena bloody Gomez. Not that she didn’t like Selena Gomez. Pop music’d always been one of the tiny fragments of herself she’d allowed to exist in the world, despite the fact that people always looked at her weird when it was on in the shite little Fiat she’d driven. But seriously? At – uh – whatever time of day this was, this was unreasonable. And why was it so loud? And why was it so tinny? And why was it only a short flipping chunk of it over and over a-bloody-gain? She was just working up to considering moving again, mainly to stop the noise, when, praise be to Allah, and Ganesh, and frankly any gods in the local vicinity, it stopped.
She tried for movement again. Nope. No-oh-ope. That was not a good idea. The bed was definitely spinning now, and the headboard seemed to be washing up and down like the bloody sea at Southend.
Where the hell was she?
Oh good Christ, it was back. Would that bloody song just stop?! “Enough with the Selena Bloody Gomez,” she wailed.
Hurling a steadying hand against the headboard, she woozily sat up, and grabbed the annoyance from next to the bed. Something about the sleep deprivation (could it be sleep deprivation when she’d clearly been asleep?) or the disorientation allowed her to pull from the recesses of her brain the lock code for her old Motorola Droid which finally silenced Selena. Only then did her brain finally spin up, at least somewhat.
This was her old phone. No, this was an ancient phone. This phone was one of the many she’d sent to recycling years ago. She briefly risked another unsteadying glance around the room. This was not her apartment, though. Not her last little grotty house share in Marnforth, either. Not any place that she recognised. And anyway, what the hell would she be doing back in England?
Wait. Her flailing brain flicked back to something she’d noticed as she sat up.
Wait. There was something on her hand. Red. Sticky.
And on the headboard, the same something was on the headboard.
She turned too quickly, found herself landing face down on the pillow again. Gods damn it. Maybe it was an ear infection? She lay still and tried to breathe, catching the reassuring smell of her own pillow. Definitely her own pillow. But where the bloody hell was she? She sat up again, but much more slowly. Stared at the words Don’t Pan[ic], written in large (presumably intended to be) friendly letters. Well, scrawled in red lipstick, and with a big smear where her hand had landed. Very bloody funny. Slowly she looked around the room – it seemed ordinary enough. British light switches and sockets – this was definitely either the UK or a very good approximation of it. The phone looked brand new, though. Felt almost box fresh apart from that small nick it’d got when she dropped it minutes after buying it.
Insanity. That was the only explanation. Or a dream. Some part of her brain claimed you can’t read in dreams, and she read the phone. So insanity then. Fair enough.
A packet of peanuts landed next to her on the bed, thwumping gently into the duvet.
“Drink the water, eat the peanuts. It’ll help. We’ll talk in a few – when you can stand up without falling over. Don’t try standing u…nevermind.”
Whoever was speaking was directly behind her and half a second too late. She’d tried and found herself woozily eating the pillow again.
Gods damn it, this was ridiculous. And who would trust water and food from a captor.
“You’re not a prisoner.”
And was she in her head? How was she in her head?
“I’ll explain when you can stand up.”
“That’s not reassuring!” Clare shout-grumbled as she attempted to marshal her uncoordinated limbs, hearing the woman’s retreating steps. After several more abortive attempts Clare conceded defeat and ate the peanuts. Annoyingly, they did help. As did the water. Propped on her elbows she grabbed a few big gulps of that and some things seemed to return to some semblance of normality. Granted not normal, because normal would be her apartment in Seattle.
She slowly rolled onto her back, staring at the bulb hanging in what was definitely a shade she’d once had. Familiarity bloomed in small spots all around the room. Cautiously, she sat up. This time the room didn’t spin. At least, not so much. Aggravating to have such a stupid thing make a difference. If this was a dream it was an ultra-high-definition-virtual-reality affair. The worn patches of the carpet where furniture had clearly once stood, the path from the door flatter than the rest, and the little pieces of fluff belying a cleaning schedule about as lacking in rigour as she’d always had. And all around the room were things she recognised. Mostly things she’d lost along the way, but so many memories.
She stood, cautious and unsteady, but successful. Managing the four paces to the door, she ping-ponged slightly as she walked down the hall, scraping a wall, then a door frame, and then finally stopping after she clipped another door, which revealed a very ordinary bathroom. The cheap white fixtures reminded her instantly of her body’s earlier urge to pee, which suddenly became rather more pressing.
She slipped the PJs down, eyes fixedly on a cracked tile opposite. She’d never liked looking at herself anyway and the fixed point to track helped with the dizziness that was very definitely still there. She sat, memories of her dad telling her “Boys should stand up to wee” unexpectedly flooding back. She never did. The memory of her dad’s words was replaced by one of her car broken down at the side of the road. Occasional flashes of light from passing traffic as she waited for the RAC. Hopping from leg to leg and finally, desperately, she’d stood behind a bush. That one time felt wrong.
At school, the rumour was that she was actually a girl. At least until PE started.
Then they just thought she was a weirdo.
She moved to arrange things, to make sure that the anatomy she’d never really felt was hers was safely pointing where it should. Her hand met air. She started to glance down and felt the lightheadedness hit hard. Suddenly the peanuts and water weren’t doing the job. Or maybe they’d come back up and she’d experience them again. Maybe it should have been pints of bitter. She laughed – a fraught and slightly hysterical noise. Wasn’t that what Ford Prefect said? 6 pints and a lot of peanuts? Uh, but Arthur had some, so 3 pints? Anyway, the sign said Don’t Panic, so maybe not panicking would be good.
But it seemed like panic would be a fair reaction.
It felt like the room was swaying dangerously and she felt certain she was falling. Utterly ridiculous to fall from a toilet in some stranger-you-haven’t-really-met’s bathroom, and she imagined herself found sprawled on the floor. Desperately, she scrabbled for purchase on the sink, praying that it would hold her. Eyes closed, she waited for the room to stop its unreasonable behaviour. This? It had to be a dream. Finally she managed to pee and, as she grabbed the toilet roll, she remembered her mum admonishing her sister, “always wipe front to back”. This could only be a dream. A fleeting thought of examining herself rubbed at the edge of her consciousness, but since standing up was already a challenge, she decided that was too big a risk.
She staggered into the lounge only seconds later, but she felt like years had passed. The woman, presumably the one who was speaking to her earlier, was sat, back to her, watching TV. Leant against the doorframe, almost clinging to it, Clare looked around the room. More familiarity in an unfamiliar place. There were things in here she remembered. Things attached to memories in her head, but the place meant nothing to her. Rain streaks blocked the window glass but revealed the flat was in a high-rise. She frantically scrabbled through her memories – no, she was certain, she’d never lived in a tower block. Bedsits, one squat, and the scabby house share in Marnforth. Not until the US did she make it higher than three or four floors. Another high-rise stood opposite, its glowing windows forming an abstract pattern in the drops as they lazily rolled down the glass.
An ad break. Some puppet monkey walked in out of the rain. The woman finally seemed to notice her and quickly leaned over, grabbing the remote from the coffee table, on which Clare’s favourite mug steamed with what looked like fresh tea in it. And biscuits. Proper host then. Clare involuntarily smiled a little at the reminder of Britishness. She’d missed that in the US. You visit someone’s house back home and they thrust tea and biscuits at you. Apparently, despite her other minimal hosting skills, this woman hadn’t skimped on that one. She tapped the remote and the TV fell silent. Just muted though. Someone appeared to be skateboarding through a lot of green balloons. Clare racked her brain for the pointless answer to the question of what the advert was for.
“You should probably sit down.”
Despite the phrasing, it was clear this wasn’t really a suggestion. And now that she wasn’t face down in a pillow – that voice. Something about it was unnervingly familiar but, despite an uncoordinated scramble through her memories, she definitely couldn’t – or wouldn’t? – allow herself to place it. Her brain rebelled again, running from something that it was desperate to avoid. Although through the haze of anxiety she felt an uncomfortable certainty that she knew what was coming.
She stepped around the sofa cautiously and perched on the armchair concentrating closely on the advert. If she dared to look around she felt certain that she would find the answer to why that voice sounded so familiar, and she was definitely not ready for that. The advert ended – mint Aero! Of course it was. She enjoyed a momentary satisfaction at having been correct.
“I know you don’t want to, but we’re going to have to talk about why you’re here.” Unlike the abrupt tone she’d used earlier, this time the woman spoke gently.
Clare tore her eyes away from the screen, postponing the inevitable by trying to take in every detail on the way. That poster on the wall, it was the same as the one she used to have from watching Sneaker Pimps at the ICA. She dwelt in the memory of screaming with abandon along with the music. Of losing herself in a crowd. Of ceasing to be him and flowing as one with the mass of people. Something – the woman snapping her fingers perhaps? – dragged her unwillingly back to the here and now. Focus. Hold on to the present. That frame? She’d picked it up from that secondhand place when she’d lived in London. The gold leaf, or paint more likely, had been peeling. It was ridiculously fru-fru for the band poster but it’d always made her smile. She’d given it away when she moved to the US.
She eventually conceded that she’d extracted every microgram of information from that and her focus slid down the wall. She stared at the way the paper had peeled, just a little, above the radiator. Studied the plaster on the wall in the fragmentary gaps between the fraying edges, the fine cracks in the wall disappearing underneath the paper. She heard the woman moving impatiently, attempting to draw her attention. Instead she traced the line of the radiator: at the end it’d leaked a bit from the valve, leaving a small streak of rust.
She could see the younger woman in her peripheral vision now and desperately resisted looking across. Instead, she analysed the carpet in front of the radiator. It was flatter; the pile crushed until nearly uniform. Clare always did like to sit on the floor by the radiator. That’d be why the carpet was flatter there. Except not there. She’d never sat there.
She swayed momentarily. Took a shuddering breath as she attempted to steady herself. She felt that same carpet under her feet grounding her in this room. This was a real place. And her? She. Was. Real.
She ran out of ways to delay; allowed her eyes to focus on the woman in the chair, and promptly dropped back out of reality into unconsciousness.
“Oh she lives. Gods be praised. I suppose,” the woman said with evident irritation as Clare hazily gazed up at her from the floor. She’d been dragged off the chair and her feet were propped up on the table. Slowly the world came into focus.
“You’re the most fainty bloody doll, aren’t you?”
Clare replied with a noise that was aimed at defending her honour, but mainly just sounded vaguely nauseated.
“Annnyway, let’s get it over with. Might as well since stability clearly isn’t your thing. Yeah. I’m you. Younger you, at least right now. Welcome to Almsworth in 2011, by the way. Doesn’t seem like many of us ended up here.”
“You know that whole thing about how each decision splits off another alternate reality?”
“This’d be one of those splits. Although mine split off a fair while before wherever you’re from, I’d guess. But anyway, when folks say HRT knocks ten years off your looks they’re not exactly specific about how that happens, are they? This’d be part of that.”
Clare decided that she was still having significant problems with reality. After flailing internally for a question she finally settled on, “But, uh, if I’m here, who’s where I should be?”
“That’s your first question? Huh. Unexpected. Okay.”
The younger woman disappeared from view for a second, leaving Clare with the sound of a pencil on paper.
Clare stumbled over words, eventually spitting out, “What’re you writing?”
“Oh, sorry. I like to write down the questions. From all of us. Helps with the next Clare. How d’y’think I knew what you were going to ask earlier? ‘course, we’re all different and special little flowers, yadda, yadda, yadda, but mostly we ask the same things.” Her head reappeared in Clare’s field of vision again. “Oh, uh, you know… It’d be much easier to talk to you if your head wasn’t wedged between the sofa and the armchair. Do you think you can last five minutes without landing on the floor again?”
It took Clare a moment, but eventually she registered that the unconventional position she’d ended up in had forced younger Clare to stretch over the arm of the sofa and look down at her. Slowly she levered herself up and propped herself against the armchair, not yet trusting any kind of movement above floor level.
“So, uh, you start in one universe, right, and transition and HRT’s a bit magic – so you get younger, but that sometimes breaks your link to the universe you started in in some way ‘they’ can’t fix. So they shuffle people around, find someone whose life is close enough to yours to slot into your universe and connect those broken threads and just do a little switchy-switch. And no-one knows. Y’know, like Myrcella, but better.” She stopped talking at Clare’s blank look, and the wry smile on her face faded quickly. “Game of Thrones? Myrcella Baratheon…they changed the actress…oh, uh, I guess…when are you from?”
“Oh, huh. Well, scratch that reference then. Clearly doesn’t age well.” She turned back to her pad for a second and scribbled a note before she continued. “Anyway, I mean, there’s an essentially infinite number of us, by which I mean, Clares – in our case – I mean apparently we’re not all called Clare, but mostly. Met a Sarah once. Um, anyway, losing the thread again. Happens a lot now. Sorry.” The younger woman paused for a moment and scooted herself more upright, buying a moment to recalibrate herself. “Each of us made a different decision at some point and that breaks some kinda tie and the two of you split off into another multiverse, one for each side of the decision. And HRT? Well, if it breaks enough ties… well, I always get a bit hazy about the details. One of the guides told me about how it really works, but it made my head hurt and all I got was staticy noises and a weird high pitched whistling. I don’t think we’re meant to know.”
Clare stared hard at the younger Clare, hopefully waiting for a punchline. In return, the younger woman smiled sardonically.
“Oh, no. I’m not joking. There should be a guide here to fix this and on a good day, they explain it to you. There was one, briefly, but she gave me the York notes version of your life, said something about a whole big quantum issue and then flipping disappeared, leaving you unconscious on my bed. The guides are meant to hang out for a bit, get you kinda back together while you wait. They say they’re short of volunteers, though. Pile of pants it is, because it keeps happening to me and I was gonna go out clubbing tonight. Just laid down for a quick nap and boom, there y’are.” She smiled again, this time more genuinely. “If you get a chance, you have to tell me about living in the States! That must be cool. Off this damp little island. Oh, and just in case you’re wondering, you won’t stay in this universe, either. It’s just a holding point. This is mine, ‘til I die, as far as I know… So there is a Clare in yours. And you should be… in some other Clare’s place with some memories patching over any little inconsistencies.”
Clare stared at her disbelievingly, then switched to glancing around the room to find proof she was in a dream. Since it wasn’t forthcoming, she tried willing a unicorn to appear. It didn’t, and eventually she gave in and looked back at her younger self.
“Oh, yeah, when I found out I was like…” she gestured vaguely. “I thought maybe it explained why some of us – trans folks, I mean – get a bit…uh, flaky, just after starting hormones. But the timing’s all wrong. Turns out that’s just second puberty being its second-puberty-self and we’re just like everyone else…a bit of an omnishambles.” She waved her hands again. “Met a sixteen-year-old us, once. She definitely shouldn’t have been here. Laid her hands on some birth control, apparently. Good girl.” She paused and smiled broadly at the memory. “Loved the technology though – very excited. Probably a techie wherever she ended up – like that’s unusual for trans girls. If she remembers anything. Most sorted one of us I’ve met in a lot of ways.”
“Well, if sortedness is any criteria for getting here then I sure as shit wouldn’t be here.” Clare finally scrabbled back up onto the armchair and stared at the reassuringly normal pictures on the TV. “But if I could try again, I’d do things differently this time,” she trailed off again. “Wait. Uh.” She flicked back to looking at her younger self, trying to find the words to broach her question. She was vaguely aware from her brief stints on Consensus that other trans people seemed to be more chill chatting about anatomy, but she wasn’t quite there yet. And definitely not right now. Eventually she just gestured downwards and tried to silently convey, what the fuck happened there?
Eventually younger Clare relented, and nodded gently. “I’m guessing you’re wondering what happened to your testicles, and how come you’re sporting a shiny new bush? Guessing you had the twins when you set off this morning, and you didn’t unexpectedly lose them after being kidnapped.”
“Oh, never mind. I just keep wondering if I’ll ever run into another Dorley Clare.” Taking in Clare’s bewildered expression, she grinned. “I’ll explain that if you’re here long enough, since you won’t remember anyway. But don’t worry about it for now, hon. Your fresh-as-a-daisy rug comes from your perception of yourself. I can’t promise what happens when you leave here, though. Sorry. That’s beyond my pay grade. Apparently about half of us have an, uh, aftermarket installation, when we get here. At least,” her grin broadened, “based on how often I’ve had this discussion. Me, I’m happily all-original equipment myself.”
Clare considered her younger self for a moment before she turned away and spent a few minutes gazing blankly at the TV. Jonathan Ross silently interviewing some woman. Wasn’t she a singer, maybe? Christ knows. Did it matter? Would she wake up somewhere else disconnected from her body again? Be unable to see herself naked? Be unable to stand her body? Fuck. And how come she couldn’t deal if this younger self could? Different brain development? Different experiences? She supposed they were different people. But…
She felt herself spiralling. A familiar darkness started to envelop her, and she felt the world slipping away again. This time she knew she’d be awake, but no longer present if she wasn’t careful. She wavered on the edge momentarily before she quickly dug her nails into her palms. The pain gradually dragged her back from the brink. Several minutes passed before she realised she could feel shaped nails digging into her skin, not the bitten-to-the-quick ones she’d been used to. She took a few ragged breaths, trying to hold onto herself. Needing to fill the dark void that’d opened up beneath her with noise. Suddenly she realised that the younger woman had moved. She was perched on the edge of the chair, arms wrapped around Clare.
“How’d you end up in Almsworth?” Clare tossed the question at her younger self as a life preserver, literally the only question she could find that didn’t start and end in a scream.
“Uni. Came for the tall girl capital of the UK, you know.”
“Joke?” She pauses momentarily “Oh, that’s probably another in-joke. Keep expecting us all to know the same stuff. Don’t worry. I promise I’m getting better at not doing that.”
“Yeah, that’s really not helpful right now.”
“No, probably not. Came for uni, ended up getting more attached to the place than maybe I should have. It doesn’t really matter. Look, the guides, they said something about the decisions that get you here. Well, the all encompassing yous. It wasn’t specific to you, like, personally. Bollocks…I’ve got to get better at this bit. So, all the yous and mes who’ve ended up here. That I’ve met. Where they go. It matters what they wanted, what they dreamed and what they decided.”
Clare scrunched herself into the chair further. “Well in my reality…In my reality, I’ve put off my life for forty years.”
“What changed? What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I decided to live.”
“You decided to live?”
“Yeah. I said fuck it. I’d lost my job anyway, so I was going to finally transition.” Clare almost seemed to be trying to become the chair itself as she tried to shrink in on herself. “I’d been on HRT for ages. I just kept putting it off. Hoping for something.”
The younger woman sat for a moment watching her. “That’d do it, I think. That decision stacked on the layers of your other decisions. I mean, that’s how I ended up locked in a basement, y’know.” She paused again at Clare’s alarmed expression, “Well, we’ve established that y’don’t know, but take it as a given that I did, and I’ll explain it later.”
Clare watched as the younger woman’s eyes unfocused for a moment and she seemed to withdraw into herself muttering “I swear to the gods that I thought that I’d done enough to atone for me being a shit, but apparently not.” Suddenly she snapped back to looking at Clare. “Anyhow, yeah. Piles of decisions on decisions and then one breaks the final link.”
“I’m here because I decided to transition?”
“Well, sort-of? I mean, not that by itself but it’s a part of it. And – reminder – you’re only for a little bit, doll. That’s why they – the guides – like to do it overnight, normally. Go to bed, and suddenly you wake up, looking like you’re a decade younger – thanks HRT! – but also not in your own reality anymore. Not that you’d know. When it works,” she explained rather more cheerfully than earlier. “Mostly dolls don’t end up here. Well, the guides say that most of them don’t. It’s not been happening that long for me, but they told me nearly everyone just hops from one reality to the next. It’s just when it’s unexpected by the person’s own brain that they end up…needing a bit more time to fix things.”
The younger woman smiled a little sadly and admitted that she’d had enough Clares appear that it’d got in the way of her own life. She’d stopped staying over with her friends and started missing her university hall’s Christmas parties. But the younger woman had only spoken briefly before she’d gone quiet. Eventually, when she’d found whatever she needed in herself, she explained that the guides would be back at some point. Normally somewhere between a couple of hours and a few days. During which time Clare most definitely wouldn’t be going out, apparently.
Until then, there was Chinese take away. Younger Clare admonished her to stay inside and not wander off and break things in her universe, before sticking the tail end of Jonathon Ross back on and running out to grab food. She admitted that she hated cooking, and anyway the only thing in the fridge was a two-week-old takeaway, which she really wouldn’t recommend, and a bottle of milk for her Weetabix.
Clare decided that maybe she should try sleeping in the hope that the world would make sense when she woke up, or better still, that she’d wake up back where she belonged. She snuggled down under the blanket on the sofa – a blanket that smelled familiarly of her, but which was definitely not a blanket she recognised. But since she was already wildly disorientated, it didn’t really matter. She burrowed under the blanket and shut the world out.
Sleeping, it turned out, did not help. At least not with the being in the wrong reality. She felt marginally more like herself though, if even more hungry. And the incessant knocking on the door that woke her didn’t make her feel any better. Eventually she gave in and crawled out from under the blanket. As she walked slowly to the door she had a sense of deja vu. It took several tries before she actually dared to look through the peephole, half expecting a pizza delivery for some reason she couldn’t place. But it was a girl guide? No, a girl scout. An American Girl Scout. Holding American-style Girl Scout cookies.
Rain was still lashing down, dripping off the hallway railings. And that definitely was a Girl Scout with a sash, and merit badges, and several boxes of cookies. She knew she wasn’t meant to go outside, but this couldn’t hurt. Clare slowly twisted the lock and let the door swing open. The air outside crackled and tasted like touching her tongue with a 9v battery.
“Would you like to buy some cookies?” The girl asked in an accent that Clare, after her brief stay in the US, could now definitely identify as not west coast. Maybe midwest somewhere.
“Uh. I don’t have any money, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, okay!” she said, her voice disturbingly chipper. Clare swore there was an echo too, somewhere beyond the edge of her hearing, but she couldn’t focus on it. “You can have some anyway! I’m so sorry you ended up here. It is our job to fix these things, although this one is more of a universal constant problem.” She scrunched her forehead briefly in something that felt like an expression of concern. Then just as quickly smiled and handed Clare a box of cookies, but continued to stand there. Clare held the cookies, feeling wildly off balance again. Dredging through her inadequate toolbox of social skills, she tried to find something that applied to the situation, but kept coming up empty.
“Um, well, thanks, I uh, thanks.” She trailed off, vaguely waving the cookies, and the girl smiled brightly.
“You shouldn’t be here. It’s okay! We found where you should be!”
“Clare did not mention the guides?”
“Um, yes. She did say a guide had told her, but I thought… I had thought…” Clare’s brain seemed to run out of words and she stood there for a personal eternity, mouth half open.
“You thought we were something else? That’s cute.” The girl smiled, an expression that seemed like it should be reassuring but definitely wasn’t. “Well, it’s just us. I moved from Alberta! We brought cookies. I thought you might like some while you travel.”
“Yah!” Clare kept trying to follow the words, but they slid off her, and gradually all she could hear was static. She struggled to focus. It became less and less clear where the sound was coming from and –
The girl smiled again at the space Clare had occupied and skipped off down the passage, occasionally splashing in the rust-streaked puddles.
The door was still standing open ten minutes later when Clare’s younger self returned, still grumbling, with the takeaway.
Chapter 3 – Welcome Home
You’re so damn electric, you (alright)
You know you got that juice (yeah)
You know you got that juice (uh)
You know you got that juice (uh-huh)
There was some object making a noise that was incredibly loud, far too close to her head. Some kind of bloody pop song playing through speakers that were far too loud and far too close and far too…oh, thank the gods, it had stopped. She was face down in the bed, again, and what…? Clare’s breathing stopped for longer than it should have as she waited.
Tried to place herself.
She couldn’t remember… something. There’d been being fired. There’d been… a flat. In England. Probably in England. Maybe younger Clare’d moved to Glasgow, she’d always loved Glasgow. No. Almsworth? Wasn’t that Essex? Something about a university?
Wait. Younger Clare?
She tried to hold the memories but they seemed uncertain and kept sliding away.
Oh gods damn it, Janelle Monet was singing at her again. This was too much, this early. Or late. Olokun wept, her head. She had a cracking bloody headache, again. Or for the first time. Damnit. She slowly, gently turned over, peeling open her eyes and letting the grey winter light in. The gods-awful cheap wall finish stared back at her. What was it with the Pacific Northwest and brown bloody paint? She sat up gingerly, swaying slightly and quickly necking the glass of water perched on the bedside table. Suddenly feeling the urge, she scarfed down a few of the peanuts that were sat in one of her bowls.
Odd. She had no recollection of ever putting them there.
She shuffled to the edge of the bed and cautiously worked on standing up. Despite some uncertainty on her part, the ground held her. Offering a multitude of prayers to all the gods, then for a reason she couldn’t quite place, quickly tacking on a prayer to the girl guides, she stumbled through to her kitchen.
It was definitely her kitchen, and that was her lounge. And there was her sofa. Well, the apartment’s sofa. Fully furnished, short term lease. Shite it may be but it was hers for a few more months, assuming she could pay the rent, and despite the thin walls it’d been better than anywhere else she’d lived. And she could almost see the Space Needle. Kind-of.
Oh pants – she was suddenly flushed with the memory of needing to find a job. Despite the weight of that threatening to displace all other thoughts from her head, there was an uncertainty about it – did she really need to find a job?
Gods, her head hurt.
Tea. Tea and breakfast and then reality, she decided. And then maybe dealing with whatever that was that happened yesterday. Or today. Whenever it was. Tenses and times and order of events were all too much. But anyway, breakfast and then maybe job search. She swung the cereal cupboard door open with a little too much force.
Apparently, it was Weetabix this morning. She sure as hell didn’t remember buying so much bloody Weetabix. She could’ve sworn she’d had Lucky Charms in here. And today felt like a Lucky Charms kind of day, but whatever.
Weetabix. She could do Weetabix. She warmed up some milk in the microwave, threw it over the little blocks, and sprinkled sugar on them. A reassuringly childhood breakfast. Unceremoniously, she shoved pizza boxes out of the way and dropped into a chair before looking around. She didn’t remember having pizza, but… there was a memory of a pizza delivery. Gods, why was everything so fuzzy? Did she drink last night? She didn’t remember drinking last night.
Hang on. The chairs? Something was off about the chairs. She could’ve sworn they were black before, but now they were grey? Her memory firmed up. No, no, they were grey. Her mind was just playing tricks on her. Probably over tired, she’d got home late. After that party celebrating the promotio… Wait, what?
She leaned over, grabbed the laptop, quickly swung the screen up, and tapped in her password. Clearly she’d not been away long enough for the laptop to be flat. Had she been away at all? The date says it’s the…same day. The middle of the afternoon.
Great, now she was eating breakfast cereal at three bloody forty seven on a Tuesday when she should be at work, if she still had work to go to. No, she did, didn’t she? All her memories felt precarious and unsettled. Shifting. Slippery and inconsequential. The laptop finally finished logging her back in and her browser tabs filled with contents. Apparently she’d got 346 unread emails. She grumbled quietly that 346 were probably spam… No, let’s be fair, one’d be from her mum asking when she’d be moving back and another would be the latest in her friend’s endless saga of Corsa repairs. She hovered over the fastmail tab.
Meh, balls to it. It was definitely not procrastinating when it was work-adjacent. Top of the list was an e-mail from her work with a contract attached and a note saying they were looking forward to seeing her back tomorrow, hoping she’d enjoyed the day off. Confusingly it was signed by her former boss. Bewilderingly it was addressed to Clare. He didn’t know. He didn’t know. No-one knew…
She stood, staring helplessly around the room. The dizziness had returned but it wasn’t as bad as when she’d awoken. Breakfast had clearly helped, and she was determined. The sofa stared back emptily at her. There’d been a letter. She was certain, there’d been a letter. Pacing over she yanked the cushions off. She was fired, wasn’t she? She remembered a letter. She remembered burying her face in it and screaming yester-uh-today? Whenever. The when didn’t matter.
There was no letter here.
She dropped to the floor and flailed her arm underneath the sofa. Still no letter. Frantically she scanned the room, grabbed her phone, scrolled through the notifications – two calls from work, a reminder that she needed to be in early tomorrow to get her badge updated with security.
And one message from an unknown number: Try to get some sleep! P.S. Enjoy the cookies.
Tiredness hit her like a train and she slumped to the floor.
She awoke in bed. Janelle Monet, as usual, brought her out of sleep. Next month it’d be something else, but this month that was the song that could get her going. Morning routine, she thought, it would help with the slight nerves she had. First day with her new team. It wasn’t a big promotion, but it was a bit more money, a bit more responsibility, and a bigger team to lead. She slipped into the bathroom. Quick pee and then on to the day. A memory dropped in of her mum chatting with her after she came home from surgery, “Now remember sweetie, it’s important: wipe front to back.” She smiled, washed her hands, wandered to the kitchen and grabbed a Girl Scout cookie while she heated the milk for her cereal.
She rolled over and swiped the phone from the bedside table well before Janelle Monet could start singing. Swiped the alarm off – briefly grumbled to herself that she was owed another two hours’ rest – and waited to hear the noise she was certain had pulled her from sleep again. Although she couldn’t hear it right at that moment, she presumed she’d been woken by a sound that’d been so quiet that if she’d not known it, not had it burned into her memory, it probably would have passed unnoticed, covered as it currently was by the sounds of Almsworth’s feeble nightlife. But she’d heard it enough times now that she knew what it meant and she’d become sensitised to the point that sleeping through it wasn’t an option. Sometimes she even thought she heard the doppler-shifted echoes of its approach as she was going to sleep, but that was probably just her imagination.
There. The vaguely metallic shushing whooshing was lurking on the edge of her hearing again.
As the sound gradually got louder and gained more definition, she conceded defeat and shoved the duvet aside, but did so with a hesitation borne of a deep desire to stay cosy and warm. It was just easier if they didn’t both get tangled up. That’d happened a few times and being cold was preferable. At least the mattress was still warm. Lying exposed, she quickly prepared to perform what would look from the outside like a weird combination of gymnastic and magic routines. Thankfully, her partner, Laura, was away, allowing her the freedom to be a little more noisy. Although Laura was familiar with the many-Clares situation, as she had come to call it, she still tried not to wake her until the other Clare had arrived. It was bad enough that Laura had to deal with disorientated Clares from other multiverses, but she didn’t need to do so with disrupted sleep.
As she waited, her mind wandered back to the first Clare to arrive, who she’d found herself sprawled embarrassingly naked on top of. There’d been some significant panic (“Oh shit, who the hell is this? Did I get waaaay too pissed last night?”), followed by total abject panic (“Oh shitting shitweasles…she’s a clone?! I’ve been fucking cloned! What the fuck is going on!”), followed by hyperventilating curled in a corner. The guides had been staggeringly unhelpful and the whole thing’d been awkward, even though by the time the unconscious other-self woke, Clare’d had at least managed to get dressed…enough.
Clare couldn’t quite look that other woman in the eye for reasons that went beyond the fact she was looking at herself. The second time it happened it seemed somehow worse, and she’d decided she could no longer risk sleeping naked unless she could work out a way to have the Clares not appear underneath her, seemingly trying to occupy the same space that she was occupying. So far, thankfully, all the Clare’s had been clothed. And her own PJs had moved the needle somewhat back towards just weird. Although it still remained the least comfortable bit of the whole situation.
As usual, tonight she’d laid still as a rock as the woman gradually appeared beneath her. The moment she’d felt truly solid, Clare had scrabbled off the bed and dragged the duvet back across the interloper. She knew other Clare would need to sleep for a while.
She shuffled around the room in the half-light from the streetlamps outside, pulling the packets of peanuts – and a couple of nut-free granola bars just in case – from the drawer and placing them on the bedside table, along with a nice fresh bottle of water. The anger and frustration she’d felt when the guides had first indicated that they could not stop this happening had dissipated over the years, and now she’d come to enjoy the time she spent with her siblings, hearing how their lives had come to diverge. But she still remembered the feeling of frustration. She’d railed at the guides, which’d felt weird: shouting at some little girl about the universe being unreasonable. And over the years she’d returned countless times to the question of why they appeared as girl guides to her – and to most of the Clares that had arrived. Something about culture and upbringing, she presumed.
She perched next to the woman laying on the bed, checking her breathing for a moment as she set the baby monitor in place. She looked about the same age as that Clare who lived in America. Who, she supposed, would be about her age now. Apparently that one Clare had seen an American Girl Scout, judging by the box of Girl Scout Cookies that had been left sat in the doorway after she’d disappeared. But who knew. It wasn’t like the girl guides’d share any answers. A lot of the questions she’d asked over the years she’d either gotten a non-answer or all she’d heard was static and whistling. Back when she’d been bargaining and pleading (unsuccessfully) for this to stop, she’d argued that she shouldn’t have to do this, that she’d never signed up for it, and one of the guides had told her that the Clares were just drawn to her. Something about her energy, about the trauma of the way she came to be herself drew others to her as they disconnected from their own timelines.
The cheerful girl guide had stood in her lounge, right in front of the telly, and explained that “When they connect to your timeline and multiverse, however transiently, quantum entanglem…” and then there’d been that minging static whistling noise again. Not like she had any background in physics to understand it anyway. She’d also gained a vague and contradictory memory of both seeing and not seeing a drawing with the words high dimensional solutions are difficult to visualise on it, along with a lot of diagrams and formulae. She’d not been able to remember anything else about it despite frantically trying to write it down, and it hadn’t helped, anyway.
Wandering around the room she performed a quick check for anything that could be used to tell what year it was. It all looked okay. She’d found the Clares were less prone to screaming lots when it took longer for them to realise they were out of their timelines. Finally, feeling happy that nothing seemingly anachronistic was immediately visible, she flicked on the light that pointed at the wall opposite the bed where her favourite edition of Hitchhiker’s cover was now framed, blown up to poster size.
She wandered out to the kitchen to grab her Weetabix. She knew she had plenty of time.
The winner for regaining consciousness was 55 minutes (although she’d been too busy screaming and panicking to time the first few, but they’d all felt longer than that anyway). That speedrunner had been the teenage Clare called Sarah. They were mostly Clares, to be fair. Some other thing involving charm, or strangeness – she couldn’t remember which – had been involved in the explanation of why they were almost always Clares. She’d decided for simplicity’s sake to call the whole group Clares. She pulled her tally chart off the side of the fridge. She hoped that she’d stop getting visitors before any other names took the lead from the 72 Clares that compared with the twelve Claras, four Lauras, three Ariellas (surprisingly), and oddly, just that one Sarah. That poor girl had been kicked out from home after she started taking birth control tablets which she’d somehow managed to get from a family planning clinic – Clare supposed that Sarah’d passed well enough as a cis girl – and then the poor lass had woken up in some strangers’ flat in an entirely other universe.
No amount of Don’t Panic posters and packets of peanuts would have calmed her down quickly.
Clare wished she could have given her, in particular, more reassurance about the universe she’d land up in. But she’d been an early traveller. Back when Clare herself couldn’t even articulate what was going on. Even still, so much remained opaque. Back then all she’d had were her favourite foods and some vaguely reassuring platitudes. “It will make sense to you,” she’d said, “Your memories will make sense, and you’ll feel at home when you arrive, I promise.” It wasn’t a promise she’d felt comfortable making then, or really now. The guides had at least acquiesced and started sending her phone notifications on the days that people she’d cared for arrived in their final multiverses. The weirdness of having memories of them having arrived back home before she had memories of them arriving in her timeline was another thing she’d slowly got used to. Scooping up her phone and scrolling through the notifications, she was pleased to see one saying that Clare’d got home to Seattle.
She’d wondered how long until that Clare discovered her little gift to her: a present from Dorley Hall. She giggled to herself. Convincing the guides about that had been much harder.
She scooped up the final bite and glanced at the baby monitor. No sign of this Clare waking up yet, so she was probably okay for a while. Maybe even enough time to run through the shower if she was quick. She crunched a particularly solid bit of Weetabix in her mouth, and popped up to make a cup of tea.