In her mind, Artemia Enriqueta’s future house would have high ceilings and be made mostly of glass to let in as much natural sunlight and the surrounding greenery as possible, because it would have to be nestled deep in the woods. In it she imagined her and Ori— who by then would be her husband— sitting next to a fire playing tea time or solving a puzzle with their two daughters, Calisto and Leto. Mrs. Artemia Shemesh, she mused. Although her married name sounded a bit odd, it sent goosebumps up and down her arms just thinking about what it would be like to spend a lifetime raising a family, working as a veterinarian, and growing old with Ori. How they would stay up late talking or reading and simply look out the window at the stars, ignoring the known constellations. Capturing their celestial light with their imaginations and rearranging them, like a schoolyard game of jacks, into secret patterns that only their love for one another could decipher.
“We’re almost there,” Ori said. “Do you want to stop for coffee or something? You know, before we enter the park?”
“No,” Artemia said, giving Ori a sleepy, side-eyed smile. “I’m good.”
The day was cloudy with a chance of light rain and Artemia’s heart pumped agitatedly as her boyfriend drove his hatchback slightly past the 50 miles per hour limit. It wasn’t her fear of crashing that raised her pulse, but rather the fact that they were on their way to Mount San Antonio, the highest peak in Los Angeles County, for a day of hiking. Art, a nickname her parents had given her from a young age, loved visiting nature and simply losing herself in it. This love for the outdoors went beyond a simple feeling. It was a sixth sense, something that could only be described as supernatural; a oneness with its feral, rogue entirety. No smartphones to dumb her down, artificial light to rot her brain or the city’s unbearable noise. This was one of the reasons she first fell in love with Ori, because he too loved nature. The other was the fact that he loved her for who she truly was, not by how society interpreted her body. He looked beyond the fact that she had been born a boy 17 years before and had been living openly as a girl for the last 6 years.
The clicking of the car’s turn left signal intermingled with the swishing of the windshield wipers caressed Art’s spine into a seated position. She wiped her eyes and looked out the raindrop-spangled window. Even though she had been there before, she was always amazed at the endless number of pine trees staring back at her, and how inhaling their purity welled up her eyes with tears, overwhelmed by their suffocating freshness.
“Oh crap,” Ori said, “I forgot to buy the pass that’ll allow us to leave our car inside the park.”
“Don’t worry, babe,” Art said. “I’m sure we can get one from one of those little diners along the way.”
“I guess you’re right. I just hate the fact that I forgot even though I had the damn site open.”
Ori smiled at Art and interlaced his fingers with hers. He was completely at peace with Art’s life choice. In fact, he himself garnered strength from seeing her deal with the various life challenges that were unique to her. She was fierce and patient like a hunter, allowing hurtful remarks to whiz by her ears like missed arrows, waiting to speak her truth. A truth that pierced through even the most hate-ridden argument meant to tear her down. Above all, Ori admired how compassionate she was. As the animals she helped by volunteering at the Vet, she was always willing to answer any questions that came from a place of innocence. She felt that it was her job to educate those who were ignorant about the changes she was going through.
However, it still made Ori nervous to deal with people who were inherently intolerant. Art knew this about him, but didn’t hold it against him because she understood how difficult it was for him and had been for her family to live with her choice. Being a woman was who she truly was and she loved her family and boyfriend for never letting go of her, even when they faced any sort of discrimination because of her.
“Look,” Art said. “Let’s stop at this diner.”
Ori kept driving despite Art’s direction. His hesitance arose from the number of Harley Davidson motorcycles parked in front of the place. The sweat on the palms of his chubby hands made the steering wheel slippery and Art noticed how he repeatedly wiped his hands on his green cargo shorts.
“What’s the matter, babe?” she asked. “Why aren’t you pulling in?”
He wasn’t stepping on the gas or brake, but simply allowing the car to idle in a neutral, free-rolling speed.
“Babe,” Art yelled, trying to snap him out of the logic loop his mind often went into when he thought about something, questioned whatever it was, and then thought about it again. When Ori would go into these bouts of thought, Art teased that she could hear the sound of a hamster wheel in bad need of lubrication squeaking out of his ears.
“Uh, I don’t know, babe,” he finally said. “I’m getting a bad feeling about this place.”
Art knew exactly what he was talking about, but felt a little offended that Ori may be embarrassed of her. She placed her hand on his and reassured him with a smile.
“Hey,” Art said. “Look at me.” Ori looked down at the center console, too afraid to own up to his fears. “Do I look like someone who needs your pity or shame?”
Ori turned his head slowly— weighed down by his admission of guilt— and looked at her with a grimace.
“Babe, you know that I love you,” he said, “and that I don’t care what others think, its just that…”
“What? What is it?” she asked.
“It’s just that I don’t want any of those biker dudes to harass or ridicule you.”
Art laughed and squeezed his hand.
“Baby, there’s nothing those guys can say to make me feel bad,” Art said. “I’ve made my choice, and believe me, I’ve gone through all the ridicule a person can go through in one lifetime. Don’t you remember the first day of high school?”
“Yeah, I guess I never thought about it that way,” he said.
“Yeah. I think that maybe you’re the one that’s afraid of being harassed or ridiculed because of me.”
Anger shot up inside of him. How could she doubt him after having been there for her during her puberty blocker injections and her estrogen hormone therapy? After having introduced her to his parents over dinner as their mouths gaped wide open? Ori swerved violently into the diner’s parking lot ditch and parked within inches of the biggest Harley he could find.
“Geez,” she said, laughing. “Relax there, cowboy.”
“Don’t you ever doubt my love for you, you hear me?” he said.
“Okay, okay. Calm down. Let me just go in there and purchase the damn pass.”
Although he trusted in her ability to fend for herself— being the stronger of the two, at least emotionally— Ori felt responsible for her well-being and sprung up from his seat, and out of the car. His assertiveness brought a smile to her face. She sometimes worried that he only did things for her to prove that he could make her happy. This single thought saddened her because she feared that someday she would be the end of him. An end Ori would welcome, never shying away from it, just for her.
“Ori, remember,” she said. “You have nothing to be afraid of. They can’t hurt us. Not them, not anybody.”
“What makes you so sure?” he said.
“Hmmm…I really can’t say. It’s just a feeling I get, like my parents are watching over me or something. You just need to trust me on this one. Okay?”
Ori nodded, and took Art by the hand.
As soon as Art and Ori set foot in the dingy establishment, all eyes shot at them. Aside from being 6’2 and a size 12 shoe, Art’s loud, high-pitched voice walking into the tepid-aired diner collided her cheerful energy against a wall of dull. They stuck out more than they were comfortable with. She felt their eyes analyzing the angularity of her strong jaw and pronounced brow; two features she had inherited from her dad— regardless of how early she started her puberty blockers— and hated looking at in the mirror. The women looking at her up and down and stripped her not only of her clothes, but of her confidence. The feeling of not fitting in started to set in, but as soon as Ori placed his hand on her shoulder, she was able to breathe again.
The walls were decorated with newspaper cutouts from the Bush administration— W not the former— vintage Coca-Cola paintings of children feeding the dark-caramel concoction to polar bears, and antlers of animals who gave their lives not knowing that their carcasses would be desecrated as hokey lodge decor. The jukebox, black with dust, sweat, and bacon fat— old, but not vintage— was blaring bad country music through its fuzzy speaker. Before Art could say a single word, Ori was already retreating toward the door. Art held his hand and pulled him forward as she walked toward the counter. A grizzled, old man— with one eye closed, the other half open— stopped wiping the foggy glasses that looked dirty even after they’d been thoroughly hand-washed.
“How can I help ya, fellas?” the old man said.
“Hello, sir,” Art said. Ori grunted trying to say hello but nothing else came out of his constricted throat. Art looked at him and whispered, “Tell him we’re here to purchase a Super Duper Adventure Recreation Pass.”
Ori looked at her in puzzlement. Is that what it’s really called? he thought.
“What?” Ori whispered. “That’s not what…”
“Just ask him,” Art insisted, trying to hold in laughter. She thought that maybe a little prank would loosen his thick legs, and add some pep in that big, soft tummy of his that she often used as a pillow.
“All right, fellas,” the old man said, impatiently. “What’s it gonna be?”
Ori cleared his throat, pulled his cargo shorts up, and reminded himself that he was Art’s man and it was his role to look after her and protect her from physical or emotional harm. She was relying on him and he needed to own up to his role as guardian and lover.
“Yes, sir,” Ori said in a deep, husky voice unlike his own. Art’s eyes popped open and she looked at her boyfriend incredulously. Why the heck is he talking like that? she wondered. “Would you be so kind as to provide me and my girl with one of your Super Duper Nature Adventure Recreation passes?”
“Nature?” Art whispered to herself.
The old man and everyone in the closet-sized establishment started laughing.
“What in God’s name is a Super Duper Nature Adventure Recreation Pass?” the old man said.
“Well… it’s uh…” Ori said, seeking for the words of an explanation that didn’t exist. He looked over at Art and she too was cracking up. “What the hell are you laughing at?”
She laughed and laughed, not giving herself enough air to breathe, turning her face completely red.
“I made…up… that name,” she finally said.
“What?” he said.
Ori felt enveloped by a sea of laughter, drowning in his own embarrassment.
“What your weird, sissy friend is trying to say is that she played a ruse on you,” the old man said amidst his loud, phlegmy cackle.
Suddenly the heat that Ori felt on the back of his neck was no longer induced by the sense of public humiliation, but by the rage that came from others humiliating his girl. He looked over at Art, and she was no longer laughing. In fact, it looked as though the air had been knocked out of her.
“Sir,” Ori said.
But nothing. The old man and everyone in the diner continued to laugh.
“Excuse me, sir,” Ori roared.
The room went silent.
“Could we please have a nature or whatever the hell the pass is called?” Ori said.
The old man squinted his half-closed eye, and peeled the closed eye open with his index finger and thumb as he leaned closer to Ori’s face. He could smell the rancid of his breath even from the other side of the counter. A putrid smell Ori first thought was coming from the kitchen.
“You know what, you little fag,” the old man said, “why don’t you and your little queer friend get the hell out of here? This is a God-fearing establishment that only serves God-fearing people.”
“Well, you lis— ”
“You heard the man,” another man said, “Get the hell out, faggots.”
“Yeah, get out,” the old man yelled. “We don’t like your kind here. Y’all are an abomination.”
Ori placed his arm around Art who was shaking uncontrollably with her hands on her ears. He pushed the ripped screen door open and sheltered Art outside from all the yelling. They ran into the car and drove off.
“But what about the pass?” Art sniffled.
“Don’t worry about it, baby,” Ori said. “We’ll figure it out. Okay?”
She nodded, curled up into a fetal position, and leaned her head on the cool glass.
Ori parked near the entrance of the park, still without a Rec Pass. He figured that one of the shops near the entrance would sell them. They had passed a few diners and convenience stores along the way, but after going through that episode with those hicks, he didn’t want to talk to anybody.
“Babe,” Art said. “I’m sorry for playing that prank on you.”
Ori looked over at her and smiled.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I know you were just trying to lighten the mood in that stuffy diner.” He reached over his hand and wove his short, stubby fingers in her long, blonde curls. “Besides, I’m the one who you should blame.”
“Why?” she said.
“Well, I wanted to leave as soon as we walked in.” Ori looked into Art’s eyes and remembered the first time they met. She was waiting in the lunch line the first day of high school all by herself. Her hair was short back then, and she was wearing a red floral print dress. He wasn’t sure why he couldn’t stop looking at her. There was something timeless about her face, as if he had seen it in an old photography magazine or perhaps renaissance painting. Whatever it was, it felt eternal.
Ori walked up to her and she smiled at him. After they introduced themselves to one another, they agreed to hang out after school. Ori knew that he was gay, but hadn’t told anybody yet. It was only after meeting Art and talking to her for hours every night that he was able to build up the courage to finally come out to his parents. Art had given him so much. So why is it so hard to give her everything she needs? he thought as he looked into her teary eyes.
“I just…It’s just that— ” he mumbled.
“Ori,” she said, “You know I hate it when you do that over something you know to be true in your heart. So, just say it.”
“I hate placing you in situations where you might be ridiculed,” he said. “I want to protect you from any harm this world may inflict on you.”
Ori bowed his head and Art noticed tears dripping from the tip of his nose onto the dark-green fabric of his shorts, turning it a few shades darker, then blending back into its original color.
“Baby, can you hear yourself?” Art said. “You can’t protect me from everything. It’s impossible.”
“Yeah, but— ”
“But nothing. This is a choice that I’ve made for myself. Don’t you think it hurts when people avoid making eye contact with me or snicker to one another when they look at me? I fucking hate it, but that’s life. Stupid people will shit on anything that makes their brain swell and butt hurt.”
Ori looked up to her again, and giggled as she wiped the tears from his cheeks and nose.
“You love me, right?” she said.
“Of course I do,” he said.
“Then don’t worry about what others think. Do you care about the environment?”
“Do you care about it even though our government pulled out of the Paris Agreement?”
“Well, think of my choice in a similar way. I’m a woman whether our government, churches, or people believe that I am or not. What I feel is as real as the air I breathe. My boy body isn’t me and it never really was. It’s something that I have always felt deep within myself. Something that cannot be silenced, either by their shaming or your unwillingness to face that shame with me.”
Ori placed his hand on Art’s thin face and kissed her lips. He pulled away and she smiled.
“Artemia Enriqueta Misena, I love you with all my heart,” he said. “My heart is yours. My heart is you.”
As Ori leaned in to kiss her again, Art turned away alarmed, squinting outside the passenger side window.
“What’s wrong?” Ori asked.
“Those biker guys are hurting that dog,” she said.
Ori looked and looked, but couldn’t see past the dense treeline.
“Wait,” he said. “I can’t see or hear anything. Are you sure it’s not my stomach? I hate to admit it, but I really wanted one of those greasy diner burgers.”
“I can’t see it either,” she said. “But I can feel its pain like I can your hands on my thighs.”
“But ho— ”
Art pushed Ori off of her and unfastened her seatbelt. She rolled the window down and the dog’s piercing yelps chattered in Ori’s teeth.
“Goddamn, it sounds like they’re beating the hell out of it,” Ori said.
Art’s eyes filled up with something red— not tears— as a glass that can’t take any more water and spills on the counter and floors. They were not tears of pain, but of rage.
“Wait! Babe, what are you doing?” Ori asked. “Don’t tell me you’re going out there.”
“That’s exactly what I’m doing,” she said. Art zipped up her yellow jacket and tied her hair in a ponytail and then into a bun. “You coming?”
As Ori decided whether he was going through with this crazy plan, Art opened the door and stepped out.
“Oh shit,” he said, stuffing his cropped, black hair into his blue baseball cap. “Wait up.”
Art hiked quietly toward the area where the men were gathered in a circle. There were five of them; all of them big, all of them laughing. Ori ran behind Art and she turned around to shush him.
“Sorry,” he said. “What are they doing to the poor thing?”
“They’re taking tuh-turns…” she said, shaking from the anger. “Fucking cowards.”
One of the men, the dog’s owner, kept beating the dog’s head with a stick that looked more like a whip of Red Vine licorice than wood. The dog howled in pain while its master’s friends just stood there, watching and drinking beer. No matter how hard the man hit the dog, it wouldn’t fight back; its nose, wet with snot and blood. Every time the man called the dog over, its inner struggle was evident; how its body wanted to seek shelter far away, and its brain to follow the command. Bowing its wounded head, the dog approached its owner, betrayed by its undying loyalty.
“That’s how you treat a bitch, Lou,” said one of the men. “Show her who’s boss.”
As Lou retracted his leg, preparing to kick it away, the dog closed its beady eyes, bracing itself for the impact of his owner’s lack of love. How could the only home it’s ever known deny it mercy, or deliverance? Art thought. I guess humans aren’t that different; we do and say things that hurt people simply to show our loyalties to those we respect. Looking up to its master, the dog clamored with its eyes what it couldn’t with its whimpering, dislocated mouth.
“Man, this damn dog won’t die,” Lou said. “I’ve fed her all kinds of shit, like rat poison, and ground beef mixed with shards of glass, but the little bitch keeps kicking.”
“I guess she loves the bastard that’s trying to kill her too damn much,” another man said.
They all laughed, took a swig from their beer bottles, and threw them at the dog, breaking instantly at its feet.
“Yeah,” Lou said, “these bitches can’t get enough of me.”
“Oh my—” Art said. “That’s it.”
“Wait, not ye—”
“Hey, stop that, you bullies.”
The men stopped their boisterous laughter, and looked at Art, who in spite of trying to appear bulkier and menacing, still looked tall and gangling. Once they gauged her minimal level of threat, they resumed their laughter.
“Who the hell are you?” Lou said.
“I’m here to order you to stop hurting that poor dog,” Art said.
“And why should I listen to some forest fairy like you? This here is my damn dog, and I can do whatever the hell I want with it.”
Art clenched her fists so tight, she started to feel light-headed. Just as she was about to charge the man, she felt Ori’s hands restraining her.
“What the heck are you doing?” Art said.
“That’s exactly what I’m wondering about you,” Ori said. “Do you seriously think that you can take these guys? I mean, I’m all for taking a beating for you. Hell, you know I’ll die for you, but asking for it isn’t the smartest thing you can do.”
“Listen, fella,” said one of the other men, “I’d listen to your fat friend there, and just get the hell out of here. Please don’t give us another reason to beat the shit out of the both of you.”
“Come on,” Ori said. “Let’s go.”
Art pulled her hands away from Ori and walked toward the dog’s owner. The other men circled in on her, keeping Ori out.
“What’s the first reason for you wanting to beat the shit out of me?” she said.
“Well, isn’t it obvious?” Lou said.
“No, it’s not. Please, tell me,” she said walking closer to Lou’s face.
The man snickered and wiped his lips after spitting.
“Say it,” Art said. “Tell me why you want to beat the shit out of me. I want to know.”
“Get this cock jockey out of my face,” he said.
“Tell me, and I’ll let you find out what happens when you beat on me. Here’s a hint, I won’t just take it like a bitch, bitch.”
The man’s face turned red, purple, and blue, spuming at the mouth, sucking in air through his mouth and snorting it out his nose. The other men were caught off guard. They were the kind whose threats were never questioned, men who were used to scaring their victims to a point of not having to act on them. The befuddled look in their eyes of Uh, what do we do now? toward their leader made him even angrier.
“Grab that little bitch,” he roared. “I’m going to teach this freak a lesson. In this here country, we want to get rid of anybody who goes against God’s natural laws.”
“Don’t you dare put your hands on me,” Art yelled.
As the men approached her, the color of her eyes went from bloodshot, caramel-brown to completely pink. A pink that seemed to give off a red glow. When Ori looked at her, even he felt fear crawling deep and sharp onto the back of his neck. What’s going on? he thought. One of the men grabbed her arm and she turned her neck sharply toward him. When they locked eyes, the man felt a deep rumbling in his stomach as if he were hungry although having had just eaten two hamburgers and a hot dog at the diner. At first, he thought it was indigestion, but when the rumbling moved lower into his pelvic region, he knew that it was something that wanted to get out quick. The abdominal pain became so intense that the man released Art’s forearm and wrapped his arms around his stomach. He got a faint hint of feces, and at first, thought it was coming from the half-dead dog. But when he looked at the other man attempting to apprehend Art, he noticed that his shoes were covered with shit coming out of his pant legs.
“What the fu— ” the man said and fell to his knees, releasing his bowels.
Lou rushed to grab the stick, covered in dried dog blood, and circled Art’s glowing body.
“This bitch ain’t queer,” Lou said. “She’s a demon witch. Grab your guns.”
The other two men ran to their motorcycles, digging through the pouches hanging on the sides. As they held their guns pointed at Art, she looked at them and they instantly turned from sterling silver into orange-red. The men cried louder than the dog they had been torturing a few moments before. They tried dropping their guns, but the flesh from their fingers had fused to that of their palms and the gun metal, as bubble gum on the sidewalk on a hot summer day.
“What in God’s name are you?” Lou said.
After cooling the other men’s weapons, Art turned her sight to the culprit of the torture. A gust of wind surrounded her body, blowing dust into any eye that was looking on. Ori closed his eyes and ran behind a tree. The man raised his stick and it flew out of his hand before he realized it was gone. He looked around the flying debris, palming the rocky ground with his eyes half-open, trying to find something else to defend himself with. When the dust settled, he opened his eyes and looked around. The two men that had soiled themselves had taken their pants off, and were running into the brush. The men whose hands had been maimed by their own guns were still rolling around in the dirt, reaching for their knives, trying to slice their hands open. Lou looked around and saw Ori hiding behind a tree. Just as he walked toward him Art hovered in front of him.
“I wouldn’t move if I were you,” she said.
Ori peeked from around the tree and saw Art floating in mid-air surrounded by a cerise aura, like a living statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe he saw on Art’s grandmother’s mantle. Her fingers looked like long arrows. She used them to force the man into a standing position and stripped him of his clothes.
“Please,” Lou said, “don’t hurt me. Whatever you are, don’t hurt me.”
“I am Artemis, daughter of Zeus and Leto, protector of nature and all animals,” Art said with a voice that echoed in the leaves, soil, and clouds.
“Artemis, goddess of what?” Ori said.
“Listen, I don’t care who you are,” the man said, holding onto a tree. “Just stay away from me, you crazy bitch.”
“I should kill you,” Art said, “but you’re not worth the heavy price that your bloodshed will toll on my hands.”
“Thank you, thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet. You still need to learn your lesson.”
Art’s index finger grew longer and sharper until it pierced deep into the man’s muscular shoulder. As he writhed in pain, his companions cried out to Art to stop, but their supplications only made her angrier, and she buried her sharp arrow past his skin, muscles, and bone and into the tree bark and soft, wood flesh.
“You’re going to kill him, you witch,” one of the men yelled.
She turned around to stab the person who had uttered those words, but the burst of energy her powers had given her was wearing off. Her hovering began to lose height, her arrow receded back into her hand, and her head filled up with sharp pain and noise. When she landed on the dirt, she heard Ori yelling at her, and a dog collar jingling in the distance.
“Oh God,” Ori said, lifting her frail body by the shoulders. “Come on, Art. Get up, get up, baby. We need to get out of here.”
He picked her up with his strong hands, and she draped limp on his arms like a Christ deposed from the cross.
“You’re going to be okay, baby,” he said. “We’re going to be okay. I’m going to take care of you. Of us. I don’t know how…but…oh God, Art. What the hell did you get us into this time?”
When Art regained consciousness, she felt the crackling warmth of a wood fire.
It was night and anything outside the glow of the small fire was pitch black. She looked around hoping to see Ori, but she panicked when there was no sign of him. She turned over and felt the matted, crusty fur of a dog. She brought her hand up to her face and noticed that it was covered bloody.
“Oh God,” she moaned, “I was hoping that what happened to you was just a bad dream.”
She turned her body and placed her hand on the dog’s neck, who was panting incessantly, yipping anytime Art touched her gashes and bruises.
“Poor girl, you’re in so much pain,” she said. Art wanted to get up and make sure that Ori was safe, but she didn’t want the dog to die alone. Where the hell are you, Ori? she thought.
At first, she thought Ori might be sleeping in the car, but then she heard a soft rustle in the dark growing louder and faster.
It was Ori.
“Hurry up,” she said, “she’s close, Ori. She’s dying.”
Ori dropped the firewood and ran over to Art, and gave her a big hug. He kissed her forehead and stroked her hair.
“Are you okay?” Ori asked.
“Yeah,” Art said. “I think so.”
Art knew that there was something in Ori’s mind; something that he dared not ask. He always bit his bottom lip, and rubbed the wispy patch of red hair growing on his chin whenever he was confused. If there wasn’t an agonizing dog on the brink of death lying next to her, she would entreat yet another game of twenty questions with Ori. But this was different. She knew that he wanted to know more about what happened earlier with the five men, and she finally felt ready to talk about it.
“Ori,” she said, clearing her throat. “I need to tell you something.”
Ori was lost in thought, looking at the fire.
“What is it?” Ori said, sitting cross-legged, and scooting closer to her. “What do you need to tell me?”
“Well, this is going to sound crazy, but…”
“But what? Does it have to do with the dog? Don’t tell me that you’re going to euthanize her.”
“No, no. Of course not. You know I would never do that. It’s about me, and some of the changes I’m going through.”
“You can trust me. With anything. Haven’t I proven that to you?”
Art took Ori’s hand and kissed his lips. She looked at him with fear, not of driving him away with what she wanted to reveal to him, but with the fact that once she revealed her secret, that she would have to leave him. She would take all of the pain in the world, all of the shame, everything as long as she could be with him. But, the events that took place with the five men changed everything.
“Art,” Ori said, snapping her out of her daze. “Tell me what’s going on? What the hell did you do to those guys? I was scared out of my goddamn mind. I didn’t know if what I was looking at was the end of the world or my girlfriend.”
“Well…I can do things that are not…normal,” she said.
“Yeah, abilities that allow me to do things that some people might consider to be miracles, or witchcraft. Depending on who you talk to.”
“Really? Like Scarlet Witch from The Avengers, and stuff like that?”
Art laughed and turned to the dog, who was whining and huffing its last breaths of life.
“Like communicating with animals, and controlling the things around me, especially in forests. I can see things that others can’t.”
Ori blinked repeatedly. He stood up, walked toward the car, and sat back down next to Art. He lay on his back, looking up at the stars just to make sure he was still on planet Earth. He scratched his head as if it were infested with fleas and ticks. After he sat back up, he looked at her and then away. Back and forth until he got up again and walked away to the car.
“So, are you saying that you’re powerful?” Ori asked, crushing a leaf in his hands.
“Yes,” she replied.
He dusted his hands and walked back to her.
“You can defend yourself from bullies, and live a better life, but you choose to hide that?”
“Well, I can’t, really. You see, every time I use my powers, I lose consciousness and grow extremely weak. A human body can only take so much god power in its frail tissue. If I use too much of it…I could…uh…die.”
He sat down and stood up again.
“Tell me,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“What’s wrong? What’s wrong?” Ori said. “What’s wrong is that I’ve been molding my life for the past two years to fit the life choice you’ve made by deciding to live your life as a woman. Now, you’re telling me that you’re a god with supernatural abilities? And that you might drop dead any time you use these abilities? I just don’t know what to feel.”
“Love me. Love me, Ori. That’s all I need. Love. It’s the reason why I’ve kept the divine hidden to myself, because for the first time in my eternal existence, I’ve found true love in you.”
“We’ve made plans, Art. Plans to go to college and get a place together— ”
“Don’t you think I know that? It’s all I dream about.”
Ori sat next to her, quiet. His glossy eyes refracted the dwindling flame, darkening their surroundings. The darkness growing within himself was due to his own loss of identity: that of protector. With powers such as the ones she demonstrated, Art would no longer need him. He’d be no better than a panting dog by her side. He had always imagined a future with her by his side, as equals, before a minister getting married. Or, in a few years, next to her hospital bed, holding her hand as she recovered from her gender confirmation surgery.
“I can love the boy who accepted his true self as a girl. I love Artemia who is transforming into a beautiful woman. But how much change can you continue to ask me to accept? Will there ever be a time when I will know you completely? Can you assure me that you’ll always be there for me?”
“Please. Don’t answer now. Let’s go to sleep and clear our min— Oh sorry. You’re a god, you probably don’t even need sleep.”
“Ori,” Art said. “I may have these abilities, but I’m still a girl.”
“Yeah, whatever. Goodnight.”
“But, what about the dog?” she said.
Ori turned and smirked.
“Why don’t you use your powers to heal it?” he said.
“But I need your help,” she said.
“Oh, now you need my help?”
He grabbed the bundle of sticks scattered on the dirt and stuck individual branches into the burning embers. The fire rekindled itself with the newfound fuel and more than before, Ori saw the twin stream of tears running down Art’s face. He lay on his side, using the underside of his plushy, forearms as pillows, looking up at Art— who hadn’t moved an inch— one last time.
“Art, please stop,” he said. “Goodnight. Just…goodnight, okay. Close your eyes, and sleep. Goodnight!”
Although he didn’t look at her for the next few hours, Ori couldn’t sleep and knew that Art wouldn’t either.
The sound of violins playing the saddest note awoke Ori from his half sleep. Although his racing thoughts had only allowed his brain to sleep for only a few minutes, he no longer felt tired. He turned around and saw that the fire had died out completely. He poked it with one of the sticks he had gathered before Art had recovered consciousness, but even the deepest buried embers were ice-cold. He looked over to where he last saw Art sitting, but she was gone. He could make out a lump on the ground. It was the dog they had rescued. Well, the one she had rescued; the one he had been too coward to even leave the car for. She was so brave. Not just because of the dog situation, but because of everything in her life. Coming out of the closet at the age of 9, thinking at first that she was gay, and then finally admitting to herself and then to the rest of her family— who was barely adjusting to her coming out— that she was indeed a girl living in a boy’s body.
“Goddammit,” Ori said. “What have I done?” All along, Art had trusted Ori with all of her secrets and deepest fears. And now that she had revealed yet another layer of herself, he wasn’t able to adjust and simply accept. To simply love. “Love, you dumb son of a bitch. That’s all she wanted, and you’ve scared her away. Where the hell could she have gone?”
He walked over to the dog and placed two of his fingers under its nose to see if it was still breathing. To his relief, it was. Thank goodness, he thought, Art must have used her healing powers. Ori pet the dog who let out a long, drawn out growl.
“She’s still in pain,” Ori said, “and so must Art.”
The violin section whose sad music had woken him up resumed its dirge. He looked around trying to pinpoint from where the hollow sound was emanating. After turning a full 360 degrees, he noticed a blue haze coming out of the earth in the near distance. He squinted and saw that it wasn’t coming out of the ground, but out of something. Walking as slow as he could, he approached the nearest tree, and hid behind it. The chirping of crickets interplaying with the hooting of owls and the distant howl of wolves preyed on Ori’s mind and played tricks with his senses. Was the light he was approaching really there? Or, was he just dreaming of finding Art bathing in it, happy to see him, completely forgiving him for doubting her?
As the blue light grew brighter, the fog accompanying it became denser. Shielding himself behind the trees surrounding the energy carried a warmth he had only experience in a sauna, back when his dad still saw him as his “little man,” and before he saw him as a disgusting faggot.
“Art,” Ori whisper-yelled at the blue mist. “Is that you?”
The blue energy waned as soon as Ori’s words echoed on the rocks, trees and the silent emptiness of the night. It turned from an amorphous glob to a large sphere, and then to the shape of a person. A thin woman. Ori was transfixed with the body’s beautiful silhouette— tall, with hips just wide enough, thighs plump and firm, to assure him that he was in the presence of a woman. Her breasts were small, hanging delicately above her crossed arms as pomegranates blooming in late May. This came as a surprise to Ori, who had grown accustomed to seeing Art hide her body under baggy T-shirts, jeans, and dresses. The vision allowed him to forget himself and what he was looking for. Seeing her artful, sinless body gleam like the most beautiful jewel the depths of the earth could have ever created, Ori was finally able to let go of his fear for Art’s well-being, of ridicule for being seen with her, and of what may happen to them in the future; as a woman or god. For the first time in their two-year relationship, he was living his love with Art in the present moment.
“What’s wrong, Ori?” Art said, her voice echoing as if in a long hallway. Ori shielded his eyes as that was the first time he had seen Art naked. Up to this point in their relationship, kissing, spooning, and holding hands had been as intimate as they had ever been. “Why do you seek me? Aren’t you tired of having to deal with me?”
Ori walked forth, away from the treeline toward Art, but was halted by a loud bear growl.
“What was that?” he said, gulping his saliva repeatedly.
A bear revealed itself from behind Art’s naked body. It was a large black bear that nuzzled its head gently under the palm of her hand as if it were a mere house dog.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “It’s only my friend, Arcas. He’s harmless.”
Ori’s wishes that this whole supernatural thing was simply part of a beautiful dream were slowly shattering before his eyes. Art was truly special, more so than he could have ever imagined. No wonder she had always been so fearless and the most adventurous of the two. She loved nature and animals. She belonged here, a place where nobody would judge her for trying to be who she truly wanted to be. The bear looked at her with so much love and innocence. Never once judging her for having breasts and a penis, something Ori himself couldn’t stop staring at.
“You are Artemis,” he gasped.
“Did you think I was just saying it to scare those boneheads?” she said, giggling along to Arcas’s huffing.
“Well, you got to understand that it’s not easy to accept all of this. To be honest, I don’t even get how it’s possible…”
“I do, but if we only believed in the things that we could understand, or as you said, possible, then nothing would be possible. But I get it, and that’s why I decided to leave. Not just you, but everything. I’ve exposed too much of myself. It’ll only be a matter of time before the park rangers find us and lock us up.”
“I won’t let them,” Ori said, charging toward her.
“That’ll happen whether you want it to or not. They’ll torture you for information, and massacre my body in the name of science, all to see where the ‘god particle’ lies within me.”
“No, you can’t leave. I love you, and you can’t leave me like this. Not after all we have been through.”
Art covered her transfigured face and wept. The bear standing by her side rubbed its head against her thigh and receded into the dark woods.
“Oh, gosh, Ori,” she said. “Can’t you see? What we had was never meant to last forever.”
“Not forever,” he said. “That’s crazy, but what about a lifetime?”
“No. We’re survivors. Hunters. We live our lives rummaging and seeking through the landfill that is life, looking for scraps of compassion and acceptance. People think that we don’t belong in the perfect little world they’ve built for themselves inside their heads.”
The glow surrounding her body had completely disappeared. Ori made his way to Art and embraced her.
“You shouldn’t worry about what others think,” Ori said. “Those people that judge and want to hurt you are the ones that don’t belong in this world. They don’t hate us for being gay or transgender. They hate us because they’ve never known any better, and hating what’s different is all they know.”
“I know,” Art said. “But it’s time to own up to my mistakes: the first is not having been completely honest with you, and the second is having used so much of my power for so little of a cause.”
Art lifted her head from Ori’s shoulder and placed her warm hands on his cheeks. His were freezing cold and warmed as soon as he placed them on hers.
“You saved a life,” he said. “That’s as good as any cause.”
“Yes, and I would do it again if I had to,” she said, “but this body is weak and it won’t survive if I use my power again.”
“That’s easy. Don’t use it again.”
She took the heat of her hands away from his face and the cold set back on his cheeks and in his heart because he knew that the next few words coming out of her mouth would seal their fate.
“Unfortunately,” Art said, not looking at Ori. “I need to use them one last time.”
“What are you talking about?” Ori asked.
“We’re being followed.”
“Really? By whom?”
“By those stupid pigs I beat up earlier today. They’re armed and are looking to kills us.”
“How do you know?”
“I can feel them on my skin as if they were goosebumps. Come on, let’s go back to the camp. There’s something else I need to do before they get here.”
Art ran back to the car and Ori followed. As he ran, he heard a rustling in the darkness. When he turned to see what it was, there was a group of bears looking at him. He felt a shiver run up his spine, colder that his deadened hands. The bear that had acted like a puppy in Art’s hands was in their midst and growled a sound that scared movement back into Ori’s legs.
“Ori,” Art yelled.
“Cuh-coming,” Ori said. “I’m right behind you.”
Flies and insects had gathered on the dog’s dew-flecked fur by the time Art and Ori made their way back to the car. Art gently swatted the bugs away from its motionless body and placed her palm on its chest, right under its front legs. The animal’s heart beat hollow, with enough warmth to cool a glass of tea.
“Is she dead?” Ori asked out of breath. “Are we too late?”
Art looked up at him and wrinkled her nose confirming his fear. Ori dropped to his knees and buried his face on her warm, exposed back. She knew that what had unfolded with the men near the diner, and the bear in the woods was too much for him to take. Now, with the passing of the dog, Art feared that Ori was not only losing hope in him ever getting out of this situation alive, but in humanity, in general. Losing her would surely send him over the edge, perhaps even cause his death. She couldn’t do what she needed to do knowing that she would cause him so much pain. He needed hope.
“I can bring her back to life,” Art said.
Ori lifted his head up.
“What did you say?” he said.
Art pulled her hair behind her ears, and sat on her calves and feet. She rubbed her palms together as a pleasant, blue glow hummed from her hands.
“I’ll be able to bring her back, but she’ll never be the same,” she said.
“Do it,” Ori said. “Just bring her back. She needs us to save her. She needs you.”
The dirt and rocks around her began to rise from the ground as Art breathed in the musty air. The more agitated her hand rubbing, the richer the hue of the blue energy emanating from her hands. She waved her hands over the dog’s body, and a light transferred from her hands to its individual hair strands. The more light that consumed its little body, the more animated the dog seemed to be.
“Is she going to be okay?” Ori asked, pacing behind her.
As if it were an empty vessel slowly being filled with water, the dog’s body was completely covered in blinding light. Its snout retracted back into the dog’s head, as did its long, floppy ears. Its front legs were pulled back and stretched out long, but not as long as its back legs. At first sight, Ori thought that Art was transforming the dog into a pig, but upon closer inspection, he started to make out human features. She wasn’t transforming the dog into an animal. She was transforming her into a girl.
The girl, who looked to be about 13 years, lay in a fetal position, shaking in the cold ground. Ori ran over and draped his navy blue jacket over her. She had short, brown hair and honey-green eyes similar to those of the dog from whom she was transformed. She was mute.
“I think I’ll name her,” Art said. “Calisto.”
“Calisto?” Ori said. “That’s a beautiful name.”
“You really think so?”
Art smiled to herself and then scrunched her lips.
“That’s the name I wanted to give to our oldest daughter,” she said.
He brought her into his arms, and kissed the crown of her head; she smelled of pine resin and morning dew. They stood in each other’s warmth for a few endless minutes.
As Ori resumed tending to Calisto’s needs, Art looked over to the dawning horizon. It was the men. They were approaching.
“Take Calisto and hide,” Art said.
“Wait,” Ori said, “are they here?”
“You gotta go hide now.”
Although Ori wanted to face the men by Art’s side, he knew what she needed to do and how she needed to do it. She needed a lover, never a protector. It finally made sense to him that she was and had always been strong enough to face the dangers that befell her, as a boy, a girl, a human, and a goddess. His role, unfortunately, was consigned to that of a spectator. He carried Calisto in his arms and ran past the car and hid behind a tree, under its needles. Just as he wanted to whisper I love you, Artemia, the first man revealed himself.
“Well, well, well,” Lou said. “What do we have here?”
“It looks like this ain’t no normal kind of queer,” said one of the men who soiled his pants.
They all laughed loudly as they encircled her naked, defenseless body.
“Yeah, I think you might be right,” said a man whose hand Art had fused shut. “I’m dying to teach this freak a lesson.”
“That’s right, you little bitch,” Lou said. “Even though you ain’t a real man, I’m going to show you what a real man does to fags like you.”
“Look at what I found over here, Lou,” one of the other men said. “It’s the queer’s friends, but I don’t see your dog.”
Lou turned to look at Art and pulled out his gun.
“Let’s see here,” Lou said. “We’ve got three queers and no dog. What the hell did you do to it?”
“I saved her from you,” Art muttered.
“What did you say?”
“I said, I saved her from a monster like you.”
Lou pistol whipped Art’s face with the butt of his gun, and spit something brown at her.
“Bring those two over here,” Lou said.
“No,” Art yelled. “Stop. Leave them alone. They’ve done nothing. It was me who hurt you all and stole your dog. Not them.”
All the men stopped what they were doing and looked over at Lou for direction. Art could tell that the men weren’t inherently bad, only bad by association. This thought made her sad, rather than hopeful, because that was how most people were; not evil, but blind followers of vile human beings, too afraid to do the right thing over what they were taught was right.
“Listen,” she begged. “You all can do whatever you want with me, but only if you promise to spare them.”
Lou looked at his friends, who were simply standing, frozen with the remorse of ones who have gone too far with something that was meant to be nothing but a prank.
“What the hell are you all waiting for?” Lou yelled. “Bring those two over here.”
The men dragged Ori and carried Calisto over to Lou as if they were two pieces of meat ready to be thrown into a kennel filled with ravenous dogs.
“Listen here, queer,” Lou said. “My buddies and I are going to have our fun with you; first of all because you made us look like sissies. Second, because we haven’t gotten any in a while. Am I right, boys?”
As they circle around Art, two men grabbed her arms and while the other two stroked her face and neck with their sand-papery skin. They carried her over to a tree and tied her up against it.
“Bring over that little butt-driller,” Lou said. “Look over here, freak. I’m going to show you how to respect other people’s property, no matter how messed up the property, or how the messed-up owner treats it.”
“Stop,” Ori yelled. “Please stop. I’ll give you anything. Money, however much you want.”
His cries were drowned out by the men’s laughter. As they dragged him by his ankles, he dug his nails deep into the earth as if he were being carried off to hell; a destination he would have preferred to the current one.
“I don’t want any of that shit,” Lou said. “I just want to beat the crap out of you.”
He raised his fist and swung it deep into Ori’s gut. The sound made from the contact between Lou’s knuckles and Ori’s soft stomach was that of a pillow falling onto a bed. Ori’s mouth shot open, but only a small gasp came out of it. The men that were holding Ori allowed him to fall to his knees, and collapse on the ground. Art struggled to free herself from the ropes, cutting her bare flesh against the tree’s bark, and the rope’s mangy braid. But she was helpless without her powers.
“Damn, this little punk can’t even take a punch,” Lou said. “I guess, that weird little bitch is next.”
His friends were hesitant at first, but they knew better than to cross Lou. They could be next if they didn’t listen.
“Now, I’m going to teach you a lesson you’ll never forget,” Lou said, unzipping his pants. “Bend her over for me, boys.”
The men looked at each other and swallowed hard.
“Damn, Lou,” said one of them, “she’s only a girl.”
“Yeah, Lou,” said the other. “I don’t even think her hole works that way yet.”
“Shut your traps and bend her over,” Lou said after he threw his pants down. “If we’re all going to get our turn, Lou’s just gotta open up the door first.”
“Stop,” Art said, her skin turning blood-red and her eyes a fuchsia glow. “Stop right now.”
“Hush up, you queer,” Lou said, not looking at her and pulling down his checkered boxers. “You’ll get a taste of Lou’s goose soon enough.”
Art’s pores exuded thick drops of blood. Her veins and muscles rose from under her skin, and pierced through it like gophers from dirt.
“Lou,” said one of the men watching over Ori. “I think yo— ”
“Mark, just shut the hell up and let me do this,” Lou said. “You know it won’t work if I can’t focus.”
The ropes restraining Art popped off her like rubber bands as her sharp bones crawled their way out of her tendons and ligaments. She took two steps, jumped, and hovered above them.
“You better listen to him, Lou,” Art said.
“Liste— ” Lou said as he turned around to pistol whip Art one more time when he saw that Art was no longer tied to the tree. “Where’d the freak go?”
“Right behind you, big boy.”
When he turned around, he saw Art’s body covered in gashes, her skin peeling off the bone like old rags.
“What the heck happened to you?” Lou said.
“Don’t worry about me,” Art said. “Worry about what’s about to happen to you?”
Art raised her hands, which were comprised only of bone and ligaments, pointing at Lou and motioned him to come over. Lou resisted and retreated. His right arm lifted involuntarily as he used the other to keep it down. The amount of force used felt as though he were trying to fell a tree with his bare hands. Art made a pulling motion and her radius arm bone ripped through her skin, squirting a shot of blood out of her limp hand, splashing the men accosting Calisto. As they wiped their faces in disgust, the young girl ran behind her. Art made a snapping motion with her hands, and the bone broke in half, creating a razor-sharp, arrowhead.
“This is for being a fucking bastard,” Art said and impaled the bone into Lou’s chest.
The other men were confused as to why their friend dropped dead. They left Ori and walked over to Lou. As they stared puzzled, Art used the other half of her bone, and aimed it at the two men.
“And this one is for encouraging a monster,” she said and pierced straight through their necks, threading the sharp bone through the air and their throats as she had seen her grandmother lovingly embroider flowers on her first dresses. The two other men restraining Ori started to run away from the carnage, shoving him to the ground, but Arcas jumped out of the treeline and mauled them, pulling off each individual limb from their bodies.
When Ori came to, he saw Calisto crying over a dying Art. He ran over and placed her head on his lap.
“Hold on, my love,” Ori said. “Wait until we can carry you into town. It’s only 30 minutes away.”
“No,” Art said. “It’s my time.”
“No. No, it’s not. It’s not your time because it’s not fair.”
Calisto came closer and took Art’s hand.
“Listen to…me,” Art said.
“Save your energy— ”
“Just…listen.” Art coughed blood as her body slowly disintegrated into a mushy, sticky substance into her bones. “I found…what I was…looking for.”
“What? What were you looking for,” Ori yelled, but by the time he finished his unanswered question, Art had vanished. “Why? Why did you have to leave?”
Calisto hugged Ori, and he cried in her arms.
She disengaged and started to collect rocks. Ori looked on, wondering what she was up to. It wasn’t until she built a small pyramid that he realized that she was building Art a shrine. Ori hurried to find a long and short stick with which to make a cross.
“Heaven has a place for us too, my love,” Ori said as he ripped a strip of fabric from his white under shirt to tie the sticks together. “God made us this way for a reason, and He’ll know how to appreciate your angelic beauty.”
Calisto took the cross from his hands, and buried it deep into the earth where Art’s body had last been seen; its surrounding decorated with leaves, stones of various colors, and pine cones.
“It’s perfect,” Ori said, placing his hand on Calisto’s shoulder.
As they walked back to the car, a big bear— one that they hadn’t seen before— stood on its hind legs, roared and bolted towards them, running at full speed. Ori wanted to run away but Calisto stood still, closing her fists, holding her ground.
“What are you doing?” Ori said. “Run, Calisto. Run.”
She nodded from side to side, refusing to budge. Ori ran and hid behind a large rock.
The bear ran faster and faster, breaking thick branches, shooting twigs, needles, and splinters around it. Calisto teared up, and began to cry loudly.
“Get over here,” he yelled.
Again, she refused to move. Although he was afraid of the bear, Ori was also afraid of turning into a coward. He was tired of being the guy who hid from confrontation and change.
“Damn,” he said, and ran toward Calisto, wrapping his burliness around her as to take the full blunt of the force.
The bear was a hurricane of dust, pebbles and mud. It was so close that they could smell its rancid breath. When the bear came within a few yards of them, Calisto reached her hand out from around Ori, and it slowed down and stopped, meeting her tiny hand with its big, black nose. The bear licked her hand and Ori’s butt-crack as a dog licking peanut butter off of it.
Ori jumped out of the way, pulling his shorts up, and the little girl gave him a look that told him that the bear was Art herself, recovered. Reborn.
He reached over to touch the bear and peed himself a little when the bear huffed, retreating his hand.
The little girl laughed, and so did Ori.
The bear lay on its side and they both scratched its belly.
“Belly scratches?” Ori said. “Yes, this is definitely Art. Look she even curls her toes like she used to…in…my bed.”
Ori’s laughter grew heavy with tears as he gave the bear a big hug. Even though it was Art, she was no longer his, and perhaps had never been. In life, he was the candle to her inextinguishable flame, one that wasn’t quite fire, but that felt its warmth and, at times, burn deep within itself.
“Oh, Art,” Ori said. “I was selfish with you. All I wanted was for us to be together, to face the world as one. But this whole time you had been suppressing your true, wonderful nature just to make us happy.” Ori released Art’s fur and stepped away. “Now you’ve found what you had been looking for all your life. Freedom, love, and acceptance.”
The bear stood up and nosed Ori’s hand.
“You are Artemis, my love, my baby,” Ori said. “I only hope that next time you grace our world with your physical, human beauty that it will be more loving and accepting of who you are and the manner in which you decide to present yourself and live your life.”
Art growled and licked Calisto one last time. She walked away from them as they waved. They both looked up and noticed that Art was heading toward a hill where Arcas and the other bears were waiting.
“She’s finally home,” Ori said. “My baby found a home in the woods with high ceilings. The highest under the stars.”
Ori walked Calisto to his car as the sun went down. He dressed her in Art’s old clothes, which were too big for her.
“I guess it’s me and you, kid,” he said.
She smiled and nodded.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m going to take good care of you. Just like Art always took care of me.”
Jose Oseguera is an LA-based writer of poetry, short fiction and literary nonfiction. His writing has been featured in Meat for Tea, Sky Island Journal, The Esthetic Apostle, The McNeese Review, and The Main Street Rag. His work has also been nominated for the "Best of the Net" award and the "Pushcart Prize."