When Chadwick’s mother leaves with Juliet, his younger sister, to take her to ballet class across town, he knows he is in the clear. He knows liberation awaits. He ransacks his mother’s closet, a walk-in paradise, colors and textures without end, shapes without modesty. Chadwick removes his football jersey and dons a loose bra. Even as it sags, droops nearly to his navel, he has never felt so alive, so authentic.
In this moment Chadwick embodies the lost lady who whispers in his mind, who speaks with his own voice within his head. In his mother’s under garments, he transcends his worldly bonds, leaps biological hurdles and breaks physiological constraints. He becomes a she, and she, no longer a he, becomes Chadwick as Chadwick is meant to be.
But Chadwick is a boy, excels at boy things, proficient in baseball, bullying and chronic masturbation, he presents himself a boy in every way. Daddy is a boy too, and urges Chadwick to be a man, but there is only so much a 14 year old can do, sit and wait until the years turn him into what he cannot avoid becoming. And what then? More at odds with his internal self, his outward appearance will dictate what others demand of him, and what’s worse, baseball is for children, bullying for misfits, bad fathers and husbands, and chronic masturbation no longer passes the time. Adulthood comes with all the snares and pitfalls of youth, but the snares are more widespread, the pitfalls deeper.
Here and now, in mother’s walk-in Shangri-La, none of the trials of tomorrow register. None of them matter. With silken scarves and parachute, black panties, coral lipstick framing a genuine smile, all is well in the exotic, if confusing, land of Chadwick.
Removing his mother’s clothes feels like dismembering his limbs, setting aside the larger parts of what makes Chadwick who he is. To discard the feminine articles feels like disrobing his soul. But Chadwick has limited time until his mother returns with Juliet, until Daddy comes home to ignore them all, watch the ballgame and drink a case of beer.
Daylight is not to be squandered, the remaining hours, not to be wasted. Chadwick has a plan. He has a brand new, shiny penny in the pocket of the boy trousers he pulls back up over his waist. He acquired it from the tip jar at the Starbucks his mother stops at on the way to drop him off to school, took it when the girl behind the counter was busy frothing up one of those mocha-something-or-others. He knows it’s not worth a damn except the one place it’s worth all you could ever ask for.
Chadwick has a secret. He knows of a wishing well nearby, has proof that it’s genuine, that all it takes is a single penny to make your wildest dreams turn real. His teammate, Lenny, fed the well a single cent, an old penny that had gone all minty green with passing decades and copper oxide. He had wished to hit a home run in the big game against the Bears, and as it turns out, his dinger broke the tie, won the game late in the ninth. With proof well-submerged in the pudding, the well a certified granter of wishes, Chadwick frolics off to change his life, alter his very being.
At the well he trips over a small collection of detritus, discarded cans of beer, empty bottles of booze, the remnants of older boys’ good time, lost artifacts of man. Among the aluminum cans and broken bottles he notices the Ninja Turtles, Transformers and G.I. Joes scattered around the well, the lone Barbie Doll burn victim and the empty box of matches caked in mud beside her charred, malnourished figure. Chadwick sidesteps the relics of last week’s playtime with Lenny. He approaches the well, eagerly yet tentatively edging closer to what is more or less the local, American suburban variant of a genie lamp buried in fist-sized jewels in some lost cave in exotic Arabia.
Up close, thighs pressed up against the outer halo of his wildest dreams, Chadwick looks downward, hands cautiously braced on the damp, stone rim which separates him from a precipitous fall. He leans over, spits into the dark, bottomless pit, awaiting, without result, the sound of impact on water or earth below.
Deep in his pocket, his hand fingers the shiny penny that will grant him a new lease on life, a new life altogether. But wishing to test the depth of the magic well, gauge how far into the earth his penny will plummet, he grabs a nearby G.I. Joe, an unsuspecting foot soldier, and volunteers the grunt to fall to his doom in the name of exploration, in the name of science. As a token of gratitude, general Chadwick salutes his man, agrees to send him off with his shiny penny, trusts him with his special wish.
Looking around, behind him, all over, Chadwick determines he is alone. He clutches his penny to his chest, close to his heart, and whispers, hardly audible amid the warm, afternoon zephyr, words almost lost in the light rustle of leaves overhead. Make me who I am meant to be, he says. Take my gift, magic well, and mold my body to match my soul.
From within and around the well, nearby energies shift, rich and palpable in the charged, electric air. The wind picks up and branches sway overhead, blue sky abandoned in broad, black swatches, unnatural and dark. Cicadas and crickets reign in their droning music while twittering birds fall silent and spasmodic squirrels go still as statues, bushy tailed gargoyles in the canopy above. Chadwick’s football jersey ripples in the wild zest of a newfound gale, billowing like a shopping bag in the wind, like a G.I. Joe paratrooper in free fall. It takes him, penny in one hand, action figure in the other, carrying him and his devices over the lip of the wide aperture, down into the deep, dark well.
Something cracks, something definitely breaks, but shock or perhaps a miracle keeps Chadwick free from pain. Minutes later, as adrenalin simmers down, his leg begins to hurt and not long after it becomes excruciating, the worst pain he has ever known. But even as Chadwick cries out from the bottom of the well, broken and indisposed, he smiles in the fading evening light. His tears of pain mingle with tears of joy. His crying, a happy tiding.
Blind at the bottom of a deep, dim abyss, Chadwick imagines himself in a new body. He listens to the sound of his own sobs echoing off the damp walls that encase him, hearing his daddy’s words which tell him he is crying like a little girl. Even in mockery, the literal truth of these words are a beacon of bright light that shine to showcase a new version of Chadwick, the only version of Chadwick that ever was.
Then, from high above, tallies of light pierce the darkness, familiar voices call out a boy’s name while searching for a girl. Chadwick! The call of his gentle mother. Chadwick! His angry father. Chadwick! Juliet, the little ballerina. They have all come to see the new she.
When Chadwick calls out into the cold night his family gravitates to the magic well. They lean in over the rim and bathe their boy in beams of battery powered light. Mother smiles to see him, watery eyes and trembling lip. Daddy, stern, scowling at the edge, equal parts relieved and annoyed. Juliet, disappointed that the nighttime adventure has concluded, that the hunt has come to a sudden end.
Looking up at his family, reading their faces, Chadwick is more than a little surprised by their collective non-reaction, their poise in the face of his bodily transformation. Maybe the football jersey is throwing them off. Maybe the mud on his face or his militant buzz cut. Maybe when they lift her out they will see it clearer, take note to the fact that they no longer have a son but two daughters.
Daddy hangs by his long arms over the lip of the well and drops down to fall inward with a muddy splash. He grunts, but is unhurt, and when he stands, erect, it becomes clear the well is not bottomless as Chadwick supposed, but only half again as tall as his daddy. Then, hoisted upward in the ample strength of a man’s arms, Daddy lifts Chadwick to Mother above, who pulls him out onto the firm ground beside her, where he stands, unhurt, with unbroken legs.
Daddy labors away climbing out of the well, cursing each time he slips before finally making it to the top, soiled and saturated, thoroughly pissed off. What the hell were you doing down there, boy? He demands of his son. Are you crazy or dumb? He asks, then answers for him, says he is both.
Afraid for the first time of his father’s disapproval, his mother’s confusion, his little sister’s competition, Chadwick searches for ways to gently break the news, reveal that he has emerged a different being, a separate sex, and that among a few wardrobe changes, it might also be convenient to register for a new name, something pretty, something delicate, perhaps Rose or Daisy, something floral. Chadwick shuffles his feet. He stutters the beginning of unformed sentences, trails off while studying his shoes. Nervously, he clutches to a small doll, an action figure held tight to his breast.
What’s that? His father squints accusatory in the gloom. His large hands outstretch like a bird of prey, a menacing pterodactyl, as he snatches away a small foot soldier who has returned unscathed from his perilous mission, from his bold journey to the center of the earth. Father holds up a G.I. Joe turned G.I. Jane, a malnourished, stick-figure bombshell blonde with perky tits and vacant, long-lashed eyes. The plastic pinup looks good in her camo trousers, her military jacket, her combat helmet spilling wild, permed, platinum hair from every available exit point.
Father sneers at the doll, then shakes his head at his son. His mother smiles, sad and understanding, supportive of something she has already suspected. Juliet complains, not recognizing the military Barbie that might be hers, but definitely identifying the scorched and half-melted beach-time Barbie paralytic among the war-torn desolation of teenage boys once at play.
On the way home, sitting in the family car which has fallen silent with a discomforting cocktail of mixed emotions, Chadwick reaches into his pants to determine what he can already feel has been unchanged. He thinks of Lenny’s home run, the blue-green, antiquated coin which purchased his game-winning heroics. Chadwick knows this is proof the wishing well is authentic. He knows it grants the desires to those that pay. He considers the G.I. Joe, the bold foot soldier who marched into danger for the sake of a greater cause. Chadwick understands. His wish was transferred to the doll, to the action figure who leapt first, if only by a fraction.
Tomorrow Chadwick will scour the sidewalks for pennies. He will dislodge the couch cushions for buried treasure, shards of shimmering shrapnel. If push to comes to shove, he will venture into Daddy’s wallet, he will smash asunder the pink, porcelain pig impregnated with his little sister’s life savings. In one way or another, he will obtain a coin, the price to be paid. Come hell or high water, Chadwick will have his wish.
James Callan grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He lives on the Kāpiti Coast, New Zealand on a small farm with his wife, Rachel, and his little boy, Finn. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Bridge Eight, White Wall Review, Beyond Queer Words, Millennial Pulp Magazine and elsewhere. His novel, A Transcendental Habit, is due for publication in 2023 with Queer Space, an imprint of Rebel Satori Press.